Feds asked to pay Native American tuition

House bill would be worth $10M

DENVER – Congress should pick up some of the tab for educating Native American students at Fort Lewis College, state lawmakers said Tuesday.

The state House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for Congress to pass a pair of bills that would tell the federal government to pay the cost for out-of-state students on the college’s Native American Tuition Waiver.

With memories of a 2009 fight about the tuition waiver still fresh, legislators took extra care to voice support for the idea of offering free tuition to Native American students.

“We believe in keeping promises,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. “We owe a debt to the Native American population and communities.”

The Department of Higher Education tried in 2009 to reduce the payments to FLC through a bill in the Legislature. But an outcry from the FLC community scuttled the bill before it got off the ground.

Still, legislators are conscious that the tuition waiver costs the state more than $10 million a year.

The state pays for a free education at the college because it agreed to do so in 1910, when the federal government transferred the Fort Lewis property to the state. At the time, Fort Lewis was an Indian boarding school. Since then, it has moved to Durango and become a four-year liberal arts college.

It’s one of just two colleges nationwide to offer free out-of-state tuition to Native American students. The other is in Minnesota.

Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, an FLC alumnus, said that a century after Colorado took over Fort Lewis, it’s time for the federal government to help. He supported the resolution.

“It sends a clear message to the Congress that is hearing these two bills that Colorado is united behind this,” Pace said.

Pace is running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

The federal bills are S. 484, by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and H.R. 3040, by Tipton. Native American students would see no changes under the bills, but the federal government would reimburse FLC for their out-of-state tuition, rather than the state picking up the cost.

The state would continue to pay the costs of in-state tuition for Native Americans from Colorado.

Neither of the bills has gotten a hearing yet, although Tipton, who also is an FLC graduate, said he’s pushing for a hearing in the House Education Committee.

“I am optimistic that we will continue to see progress,” Tipton said in an email.

Bennet said he and Tipton are working together.

“The Colorado House underscored the vital need to ensure that we uphold our commitment to our students. I will continue to fight for the federal government to uphold its end of the agreement,” Bennet said in an email.

The resolution, House Joint Resolution 1016, passed on a voice vote and now goes to the state Senate.

In other Native American education news, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that allows school districts to hire native language instructors even if they lack a teaching certificate.

Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, was one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 57.

“Students who wish to learn a Native American language should have the same access as those who wish to learn traditional languages taught in Colorado public schools,” Brown said. “Including indigenous language instruction in our education system enriches our schools and honors Native America culture.”

jhanel@durangoherald.com