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A new bill could ease way for tribes to sponsor charter schools



A measure cruised ahead that would pave the way for Oklahoma Indian tribes to sponsor charter schools in their districts.

Senate Bill 586 was approved by the Oklahoma House by a vote of 78-18 on April 15 and went back to the Senate for further amendments, but is expected to cross the governor's desk for approval, said one of its co-authors, Rep. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa.

With 37 federally recognized tribes, the impact of the bill can be enormous, Shumate said. He said charter schools operate free of state mandates and provide more local control of the school and aid students in low-income areas.

"The tribes are instrumental in building the state," he said. "Oklahoma is unique because it has so many federally recognized tribes. So this legislation makes sense."

The bill, the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act, stipulates that school districts with more than 5,000 students or urban areas with a census population of more than 500,000 qualify to open a charter school. Tribal specific language in the bill outlines that federally recognized Indian tribes can have a charter school on "property held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs," according to the language of the bill.

Meanwhile, national Indian education advocates also back the idea. Robert Cook, president of the National Indian Education Association, said the idea furthers cultural rejuvenation and addresses dropout rates among Indian students.

With a moratorium on building new federal Indian schools, the timing is crucial, he said.

"Tribes are looking to integrate language and culture into their curriculum," he said. "Our public schools don't address all our needs. For example, our history is via the white views."

Shumate noted that Indian tribes " specifically the Cherokee Nation based in Tahlequah " have expressed an interest in a charter school. The 250,000-member tribe currently has a joint operating agreement with the BIA for the federal Indian boarding school, Sequoyah High School, also located in Tahlequah.

Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said the tribe was not interested in starting a charter school in a metropolitan area. 

"Some of the rural schools within the Cherokee Nation's jurisdiction have had serious financial difficulties," he said. "We want these schools to thrive, and if we could help them through a charter school plan we are interested in making it happen."

The bill was co-authored by Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, and co-sponsored by Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa. 

The bill adds that a charter school can include a new school site or portions of an existing site. An entire school district may not become a charter school district.

Because federal law mandates that education funds go to a state and then into districts, the possibility that tribes would be direct recipients in the future for per capita student money is unlikely, officials said.  "S.E. Ruckman

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