Carolyn Zuback teaches kindergartners in Browning's language immersion program.

Lawmakers introduced bills Monday to extend a pair of Native language preservation programs and supplement federal grants for programs serving English learner students with state and local funding.

The bills come out of the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee, which met between the 2017 and 2019 sessions, and are supported by the Montana School Boards Association, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation and the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, among others.

Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, a Democrat from Crow Agency, sponsored the English learner bill, which would require the state to at least partially match federal grants to programs for students with limited proficiency in the English language. The bill would make $500,000 available to the Office of Public Instruction to match federal money if passed, equal to the amount of federal money the state received in 2017-18 to fund programs for students with limited English proficiency.

“The intent is to, at the end of the day, help students do well academically,” Stewart Peregoy said. Her bill is House Bill 18.

As noted by Peregoy, Montana is one of only four states that does not provide any funding for programs serving English learners. The bill also includes a requirement for school districts to match the state's contribution.

In a September report, the State-Tribal Relations Committee noted that 76 percent of Montana’s 3,000 English learner students spoke an indigenous language at home. As a subgroup, Montana’s English learner students graduate at a 63 percent rate, lower than the state rate of 86 percent for all students.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder, introduced a pair of bills that would extend the state Indian Language Preservation Program and the Cultural Integrity and Commitment Act through 2023.

“I felt a need to come up with something to preserve the language of the tribes in the state of Montana,” Windy Boy said of the language preservation program, the legislation for which he sponsored in 2013.

Windy Boy added that his own tribe, the Chippewa Cree, has seen its Cree-speaking population fall to about 100 fluent members from 165 in 2013. The Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs estimates the tribe’s enrollment at 6,177 members.

“As we continue on the process and the procedures of the pursuit of language preservation, it is a high need of trying to come up with this,” Windy Boy said. His bill is House Bill 33.

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Windy Boy’s proposal for extension of the Cultural Integrity and Commitment Act requires approximately $50,000 in general fund expenditures annually through 2023. The act, passed in 2015, encourages school districts to sponsor language immersion programs in which students receive instruction in a Native language for at least half of the school day. This is House Bill 41.

Without extension, the act terminates June 30.

Districts eligible for immersion programs must encompass or be adjacent to one of Montana’s seven reservations, or have a student body at least 10 percent Native American. Eighty-eight districts, nearly a quarter of those statewide, qualify under the 10 percent threshold. The bill does not clarify if it would include the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which is recognized by the state of Montana but not the federal government. The tribe does not have reservation lands in the state.

Currently, only elementary districts in Browning, Hardin, Rocky Boy and Wyola sponsor half-time programs, in which about 65 students participate, according to the fiscal notes of Windy Boy’s bill.

The Browning Elementary program wasted no time in showing results: A 2016 Missoulian article reported that within months, students in the immersion program outperformed nonparticipants in identifying numbers and counting out loud. Participants also attended class at a higher rate.

The annual figure of $50,000 assumes that the four half-time programs will continue in the 2021 biennium with attendance of 95 students. According to the bill’s fiscal notes, the Office of Public Instruction is currently unaware of further districts interested in founding immersion programs.

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