HELENA - It's been 32 years since the framers of the 1972 Montana Constitution committed the state to educate all public school students on the unique cultural heritage of Montana's Indians.
Since then, both Indian and white lawmakers have repeatedly tried to force the state to implement Article X, Section 1, Subsection 2 of the constitution. But to no avail, say lawyers for the Montana Indian Education Association.
The only mandatory Indian education classes for teachers, adopted in 1973, were abandoned by 1979. A committee established in 1999 by the Legislature ultimately led nowhere.
And subsequent Indian education programs developed by the state Office of Public Instruction, the Board of Public Education, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and the Board of Regents were stymied when both the 2001 and 2003 Legislatures refused to fund them.
All schools have to do now to meet the constitutional requirement is to merely check "yes" or "no" on a state form indicating their district's compliance with what's formally called the Indian Education For All Act.
There is no independent verification as to whether or not districts that check "yes" actually have an Indian education program. And there is no way for the state to know the substance of that program.
"Nobody has any standards," said Steve Doherty, a Great Falls attorney and former state senator. "Nobody knows what it means. It could mean having a Thanksgiving Day program that includes a reference to Indians."
That's why the Montana Indian Education Association had Doherty draft the only friend of the court brief filed in the lawsuit over school funding currently being heard in state District Court in Helena.
The basic premise of the suit, filed on behalf of 11 school districts, six citizens and four education groups, is that public primary and secondary education in Montana is funded both inequitably and inadequately.
One example of the inadequate funding would be the state's refusal to fund Indian education programs as required by the state constitution, Doherty said.
"This language, brimming with promise, has been stripped of practical meaning and application by over three decades of neglect, and in some instances, outright hostility by the state's legislative and executive branches," the brief states.
"The state has altogether failed to provide any funding for the Indian education article, and thus has clearly run afoul of the constitution," the brief adds. "The Indian education article means what it says, but means nothing at all if not implemented, and implementation needs funding."
While the Legislature has repeatedly failed to fund a comprehensive program, elementary Indian students from the St. Labre, St. Charles, St. Xavier schools, and Browning schools recognized the state's insincerity, the brief says. And they did some fund raising of their own.
These students presented the $7,304 they collected to Gov. Judy Martz last year for an Indian education program.
Since then, Martz has given $50,000 of a federal windfall the state received to the state Office of Public Instruction to develop an Indian Education For All curriculum. Joe Lamson, OPI spokesman, said his office is currently working on that.
But Doherty said the governor's money is too little, too late. And the lawyers for those suing the state over school funding said the state has not addressed the constitutional requirement of Indian Education For All.
"You will not hear evidence from the state of Montana that has been done," Jim Molloy said during opening arguments last week.
The state's lawyers did not address the issue of Indian Education For All in their opening arguments Jan. 20. Assistant Attorney General Ali Bovingdon, who is representing the state alongside state Solicitor Brian Morris, said the state's defense on the Indian education claims will be unveiled as the trial progresses.
The trial is expected to last through Feb. 6.