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Minnesota Boosts Funding for Native Schools, Students

American Indian students and tribal schools in Minnesota will receive $18 million in new funding as part of a $17 billion education funding bill negotiated in a special legislative session earlier this month.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that the money will increase per pupil funding at tribal schools and will support school-based programs aimed at improving American Indian academic performance. The state's four tribal schools will receive $5 million to increase state per pupil funding from $1,500 to $3,230, which is in addition to the federal money each school receives. Non-tribal schools that have at least 20 American Indian students will receive $20,000 in new funding as well as an additional $358 per student.

In the article, Dennis Olson, state director of American Indian Education, said although Minnesota has had policies aimed at improving education for Native students, "the money rarely followed." Now, Olson said, "We are putting our money where our mouth is, essentially."

Earlier this year, educators from Minnesota's tribal schools lobbied for more funding to supplement what they said was inadequate federal funding. Fewer than 3 percent of students in Minnesota are American Indian, and those students have one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation. Only 51 percent of Minnesota's Native students graduate, according to recently released data from the state's education department, compared to the state average of 81 percent. 

The funding increase comes at a time of increased national attention on tribal schools. A Bureau of Indian Education Study Group report released last year highlighted the challenges facing Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools, which are among the lowest performing schools in the nation. During the 2011-12 school year, the graduation rate at BIE schools was only 53 percent, compared to the national average of 80 percent. Native youth often live in communities with high unemployment rates and high rates of alcoholism, issues that Education Week explored in a 2013 story package on Indian education. The BIE Study Group recommended strategies to improve those schools, including moving away from a federal "command and control culture" and providing tribes with the autonomy to offer classes relevant to their history and culture.

In the wake of that BIE report, the Obama administration has conducted several listening tours to learn more about challenges facing Native communities and has also invited Native youth to the White House to discuss these issues in July. President Obama's FY 2016 budget proposal requested a total of $20.8 billion for federal programs that serve tribes, including $53 million to expand a program for Native youth. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will award grants to several tribes to improve conditions for Native youth.

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