Leg Looking to Close Achievement Gap for Native Americans

Representative Jack Draxler (Republican - North Logan)
Representative Jack Draxler (Republican – North Logan)

A bill that would create a commission to help determine objectives to improve education among Utah’s native American population was passed out of the Senate Education Committee with a favorable recommendation Thursday.

HB 33 – American Indian-Alaskan Native Education Amendments, which is sponsored by Representative Jack Draxler (Republican – North Logan), would create the American Indian-Alaskan Native Education Commission.

The commission would be charged with creating and presenting a plan to address the educational achievement gap of the state’s American Indian and Alaskan Native students. Membership would consist of 16 people, including representatives from the Navajo, Ute, Paiute, Shoshone, Goshute, and San Juan Southern Paiute tribes while the Utah State Superintendent, Brad Smith, would chair the commission.

The commission would report directly to the Native American Legislative Liaison Committee, and their findings would be due by the end of this year. Draxler, who serves as the house chair of that committee, says that the Native American student achievement gap is the worst of any ethnic or cultural group. In language arts, Native American students average 20 percent lower than the Utah average while math and  scores are even worse: 23 and 29 percent lower than average, respectively.

Draxler spoke about the need for “concrete” solutions to help address the achievement gap. “If this kind of achievement gap existed with our children and grandchildren, we would’ve sprung into action a long time ago. But for some reason, the Native American children haven’t gotten that kind of attention.”

Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) applauded the bill. “This is one of the great, important things of this whole session.” However, Senator Mark Madsen (Republican – Eagle Mountain) questioned the need for creating a commission. “I really believe that we have to have more involvement from the people that are supposed to be receiving the services from the state office. I support that concept. I just don’t know what’s prohibiting this from happening now. Why can’t we just call these folks together now?”

“The main thing is they are in far-flung locations. There is a fiscal note to the bill, because there will be expense in paying their cost to being able to come and participate,” said Draxler. He also explained that having a commission would help give the situation more of a sense of urgency.

Shirlee Silversmith, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, believes that the education system needs major improvements. “When we talk about this bill, we are also looking forward to the students that need to be graduating from high school and pursing a college education. There needs to be a pathway created for them. For generations, we have not met that mark. We’ve had less than 50 percent graduation across the nation, and that just cannot be anymore. We have got to change this.”

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