Tester, in Line to Be SCIA Chair, to Introduce Indian School Language Bill

Indian Country Today

by Rob Capriccioso

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) is gearing up to introduce legislation that would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to provide increased federal financial support to Native American language programs at American Indian-focused schools.

Sources familiar with Tester’s plan shared a copy of his legislation with Indian Country Today Media Network. A formal announcement from his office is expected later on January 16.

“The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 includes unique policy barriers to schools taught through Native American languages and a lack of adequate funding to support such opportunities,” according to the legislation.

To address this problem, Tester’s bill, known as the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, would establish a grant program to support schools using Native American languages as their primary language of instruction.

If passed, the legislation would appropriate $5 million for fiscal year 2015, and “such sums as may be necessary for each of the succeeding 4 fiscal years.” The secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior would be responsible for making grant awards to eligible institutions each of the years, and grantees would be required to submit annual reports.

The goal is to increase the number of Native American graduates at all levels of education, according to the bill.

The legislation highlights reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that say schools that primarily use Native American languages to deliver education have generally had high school graduation and college attendance rates above the norm for their peers.

This bill in addition to Tester’s previous support of Indian country initiatives serve as positive signals of his priorities for tribal leaders and citizens who are well aware of the rumors that he may soon become the next chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA).

Current SCIA chair Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) is widely speculated to be a possible replacement to chair the Small Business Committee due to the impending exit of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) from the chamber and the ensuing reshuffling of leadership positions.

Tester has long been proud of his SCIA service. In a 2012 interview with ICTMN, he said, “I serve on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs-we work hard, and the accomplishments are many, from the Native American protections in the Violence Against Women Act to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to water settlements to my work with veterans to the Tribal Law and Order Act to NAHASDA. I am very proud of my record. I also visit every reservation in Montana every year.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has yet to announce whether Cantwell will choose to abandon the SCIA chair.