Lawmaker scraps Native American tuition waiver bill

By Jimy Valenti
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Last week amidst a firestorm of political pressure, perceived racial injustice and intense budget bickering, a bill was killed that would have reduced funding for a college that educates hundreds of Native American students.

Poster hung throughout Fort Lewis by Navajo student, Alray Nelson. “This is the reason that I pulled my bill,” said Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora. “It’s mischaracterizing what I was trying to do.”
Artwork courtesy Alray Nelson

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, cited misinformation and unwarranted charges of racism surrounding House Bill 1067, which would have cut $1.8 million from Fort Lewis College and change how their Native American tuition waiver operates.

“This was never about Native American students,” said Middleton. “The fact the bill was characterized as such is both highly misleading and unfortunate.”

In 1911, the federal government gave Colorado more than 6,000 acres of land near Hesperus Colo. in exchange for educating all Native American students free of charge, regardless of their home state. The exchange was encompassed in an official treaty.

Fort Lewis College currently enrolls 606 out-of-state Native American students along with 149 from Colorado. The state pays the tuition for all Native Americans attending the college and pays the out-of-state rate for those coming from elsewhere.

This amounts to $10.7 million for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, up from $6.5 million in 2004-2005. Ninety-six percent of these funds are for out-of-state students.

Middleton’s bill, which she carried for the Department of Higher Education, would not have violated the treaty, but would have paid the college a lower cost of instruction rate for out-of-state Native American students instead of the more lucrative out-of-state rate — or $13,217 per student instead of $16,060. That is nearly a $500 drop in funding for every full time student at the college.

Some detractors, who read a news story about the proposed bill in mid-January, became alarmed that it could violate a 99-year-old Indian treaty.

“I would have never known Rep. Middleton was trying to cut our funding until I saw that story,” said 24-year-old senior at Fort Lewis College and member of the Navajo Nation, Alray Nelson.

Nelson organized a Facebook group called Students for the Native American Tuition Waiver @ Fort Lewis College that attracted more than 2,000 members. He also organized forums educating Fort Lewis students about the bill.

“This is an attack on the college and not on any race or people,“ students told Steve Schwartz, vice president of finance and administration for Fort Lewis College, at a packed forum organized by Nelson.

Although Nelson acknowledged the treaty would not be violated in the bill, he filled the campus with posters that said, “Honor & Uphold. The Sacred Trust.”

“This is the reason that I pulled my bill,” said Middleton in response to the poster. “It’s mischaracterizing what I was trying to do.”

Middleton received approximately 100 emails from people against her legislation. Steeped in angered emotion, each one was individually written, as opposed to the chain emails she usually receives that contain common language.

The day before Middleton’s Jan. 22 press conference, when she officially killed her bill, Middleton met with Sen. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus and Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, along with two Fort Lewis alumni, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo. Ernest House, the executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, and Fort Lewis’s general consul were also in attendance.

The group persuaded Middleton to take her bill off the table, citing potential lawsuits, treaty violations and inevitable political fighting.

“This was about the money and the treaty violations and the potential law suits was a way to protect the funding,” said Middleton.

Middleton killed her bill because of the deeply held belief by many that it would not uphold the “Sacred Trust” — the contract granting free tuition for Native American students.

“The level of personal concern out weighed the value of making policy change in a vacuum,” said Middleton in an interview Tuesday, “even though I believe this would not have impacted a single Native American student.”

Fort Lewis’s budget concerns are far from over. According to Schwartz, Fort Lewis is facing a 31 percent budget cut, nearing $4 million, compared to the 21 percent state average.

“No other institution right now is being singled out the way we are,” said Schwartz.

In a Telluride Daily Planet editorial on Jan. 26, Sen. Whitehead wrote that he understands the state’s dire budget concerns, but pointed out that Southwest Colorado should not “bear a disproportionate share of the burden.”

Middleton said she agrees that Fort Lewis is being singled out, but rightfully so. She said that Fort Lewis is not like any other school in the state because of the tuition waiver program and unique academic goals. Middleton said her bill was aimed at fixing these discrepancies, thus allowing Fort Lewis to fit in better with it’s peer institutions.

Every college in the state gets a base funding allocation based on the number of non-resident students. The more non-resident students the less the state pays, because non-resident dollars actually support the school.

In Fort Lewis’s case the state is allocating general fund dollars similar to every other school and paying the tuition for many non-resident Native American students, which skews the state’s system. In other colleges out-of-state students are helping to support the school, not the state. This causes the Joint Budget Committee and the Department of Higher Education to view Fort Lewis differently.

“You can talk about what’s fair or equal but they have a program that is unique to them,” said Middleton.

Now that her bill is no longer under consideration, Middleton feels a new funding solution is needed. According to the CDHE, excess funds needed for the waiver program are being taken from state work-study dollars.

Middleton said she believes that Fort Lewis should grant all students participating in the waiver program in-state tuition, but still pay cost of instruction for the non-residents. This way Fort Lewis’s general funding from the state would increase because it would have fewer non-resident students and easily fit in with other institutions in the eyes of the JBC and CDHE.

Middleton also said that legislation could be passed granting Fort Lewis the ability to tax the surrounding citizens to help offset costs.

The best way to help all of higher education, according to Middleton, is to introduce a ballot initiative asking Colorado tax payers to support early childhood, K-12, and higher education funding.

“There was too much in the way of hurt feelings, emotion and perceived bad feeling to make this [HB 1067] a viable path,” acknowledged Middleton. “There are other ways to get at the policy solution and we’re going to have to work on those.”

Jimy@coloradostatesman.com