Accreditation Authority Should Be Granted to Tribal Educators

By Vi Waln

The Commission for Oceti Sakowin Accreditation (COSA) is an organization of dedicated educators who have worked for several years to affect change in the school systems. The curriculum currently mandated by accreditation authorities for South Dakota has been failing us for decades. The educators behind COSA grew weary of watching tribal students fail in academic programs at the K-12, community college and university level.

So, instead of complaining about a system that obviously doesn’t work for us, this group of educators went to work on the issue. Indian educators are everyday people. Many were born and raised on the reservation. They are acutely aware of how difficult school can be for tribal students. Their intent is to put accreditation authority in the hands of our own people. The concept of having our own accreditation authority for tribal education, is also known as sovereignty.

Many Indian educators are also aware of the struggle our high school graduates face in attempting to pass freshman level college courses. For example, when I first enrolled in a university, the vocabulary level of my classmates was well over my head. I carried around a Merriman-Webster Dictionary during my first year of school. Without that dictionary, along with hours of remedial research, I certainly would have failed freshman English.

If you ask me what the worst thing about that first year at the university was, I’d have to admit it would be a toss-up between (1) the realization that you are academically unprepared for freshman English or (2) lugging around a heavy dictionary with the other required textbooks.

Consequently, tribal students attending reservation high schools are still not academically prepared to succeed in college. In fact, the majority of our tribal students enter higher education institutions only to spend time completing remedial courses that offer a curriculum similar to what they should have learned in high school.

So, COSA was formed with the intent to improve the tribal student experience and work for the authority to implement accreditation standards which would allow college freshmen to succeed. On March 6, 2017, South Dakota SB 125, which was written to “revise the list of organizations which may approve and accredit a nonpublic school,” was presented to the South Dakota House lawmakers to vote up or down. Unfortunately, SB 125 failed to pass by a vote of 31 ayes and 35 nays.

An opinion on SB 125 written by Elizabeth May of District 27, was confusing. She wrote:

Oceti Sakowin or COSA is seeking approval to be added to the accreditation list. Concerns surrounding Gear-Up and the $16.5 million in grant money that went through Mid Central in the last decade have some committee members concerned.

Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium was in charge of the program for six years and handled nearly $6 million in grant money. The American Institute for Indian Innovation took over five years ago with $10.7 million in grant money. It turns out both nonprofit foundations were started by Scott Westerhuis (Mid-Central) who accepted millions in GEAR UP money. The concerns surrounding grant money distributed by Mid Central going to OSEC or Oceti Sakowin Educational Consortium overlapped during the same time money was going to American Indian Institute for Innovation or AIII.

Absent the Auditor General’s long audit process to determine where the $62 million went under the shell corporations formed by Scott Westerhuis I doubt this legislation [South Dakota Senate Bill 125] will move forward.

As you can read, Ms. May provided some background about the Oceti Sakowin Educational Consortium (OSEC) and their ties to the 2015 SD GEAR-UP controversy. If I was a reader who didn’t know that COSA was a completely separate organization from OSEC, I would’ve believed it was OSEC working to obtain authorization to accredit nonpublic (tribal) schools. OSEC has no legal relation to COSA.

So, lawmakers who may have believed that OSEC had metamorphosed into COSA, were likely just as confused as Ms. May. Unfortunately, confusion seemed to be a determining factor in the defeat of SB 125. Now, COSA has to wait until the 2018 legislation session for a similar bill to be presented to determine who has accreditation authority over private, i.e. tribal, schools.

South Dakota legislators are elected to work at improving conditions for all people living in this state. It’s reasonable for citizens to believe legislators have some responsibility to do adequate research on the organizations affected by the proposed laws, voted up or down every year in Pierre. That is, doing the homework about organizations in our own state might result in less confusion when bills are put to a vote.

Thank you to our local legislators for their vote of confidence on SB 125. It’s unfortunate that other legislators, who know little about tribal education, voted the bill down.

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