Roberts: Need for school funding reform still exists

Roberts: Need for school funding reform still exists by David Lias In approximately a month, the South Dakota Legislature will once again be in session.

If Elaine Roberts, president of the South Dakota Education Association/NEA, had her way, state lawmakers would focus on finding a fairer, more effective way to fund K-12 education in the state.

She's not optimistic that the beginning of 1999 will be marked by any significant education funding reforms, however.

She predicted that Amendment A, which would have prohibited the use of property taxes to fund education, would fail in November.

South Dakotans who voted to defeat the amendment did the right thing, she said. Unfortunately, their decision simply was limited to the amendment. Tax reform was never addressed, she said.

"In some form or another, until we address that issue, we're going to keep holding our school children hostage because the adults can't decide how they want to fund education and have the will to do what they need to do," Roberts said.

The SDEA, she said, espouses the development of a balanced tax structure in South Dakota to fund education.

"We believe that there has to be a partnership involving the local, the state and the federal governments. We also believe that there needs to be a balance in our system," Roberts said. "Do we have a position against a corporate and a state income tax? No, we do not. That's all part of a balanced tax system that must be looked at as we look at how we fund schools."

Many South Dakotans — even those in the position of leadership — feel this is an issue that has received enough attention, she said.

"With the new spending formula, the governor and the Legislature think they have answered that problem — we just give so much per student — but it's still based on property taxes, what the local districts can do."

She noted that Lead-Deadwood, Dakota Valley and some other districts in the state don't get any state aid because of their assessed valuations. The Sioux Falls School District gets back 20 percent from the state.

"We'd like to see a balanced system, and I don't know if it will happen in my lifetime, but I was born and raised in Iowa, and we did quite well with an income tax, a sales tax and property taxes in terms of services that were available and the education system," Roberts said, "and quite frankly we pay more taxes here than we did there, given the structure of the system."

Roberts said she recently reviewed a state commission's tax study that was done when George Mickelson was governor.

"One of the commission's recommendations was a proposal for a balanced tax system that would fund schools at a level higher than what we have now," she said. "We started 1997 with 1995 dollars in the schools, and people don't like to pay taxes, but the reality is our school system, our education formula, is underfunded in terms of delivering a quality education." Because of inadequate funding, South Dakota school districts are forced to use a piece-meal approach toward providing education, she said.

"There's no real plan for K-12 education, it's a little bit of this and little bit of that, and vocational/technical education is high on the priority list," Roberts said.

She added that some state leaders believe technology will help South Dakota school districts, especially smaller districts with limited resources.

Those districts, however, are already strapped for cash, Roberts said.

"Millions of dollars have gone into technology and wiring the schools, but I've been in many, many schools across the state," she said. "They have wires, but they don't have the resources to buy the hardware to connect to it. They don't have the resources to train their teachers. They don't have the ongoing resources to pay for the Internet connections that are necessary."

In the meantime, some districts must use 15 year old science textbooks, have cut programs, and increased class sizes, she said.

"When will someone provide leadership, bring us together, so we all know what we want and we can all move in the same direction?" she asked.

That leadership is especially needed at a time when many school districts find themselves trying to teach a modern curriculum in buildings that are several decades old and beginning to outlive their usefulness.

Constructing new school buildings is not always the answer, especially for smaller school districts that are experiencing declining enrollments. A district may, for example, build a new high school and find in 10 years that it doesn't have enough students to sustain the school.

"That is not good use of taxpayer dollars," Roberts said. "It doesn't necessarily deliver the best education for our students, so I keep saying, why can't we have some real leadership on this issue?"

Roberts said the addition of computer labs is a positive development to schools, but even this use of modern technology has its limits.

"One thing educators are finding out in terms of integrating it (computer labs) into instruction, because it is a tool for instruction, is they (the computers) need to be in the classrooms," Roberts said. "Computer labs may not be the most effective way to deliver the technology and instruction.

"Education in South Dakota is much, much more than routers and servers. It's much more than technology," she added. "It's the human resources that deliver the education, and we have difficulty hiring qualified people. In fact, I've been in districts where they can't find certified teachers; they're using long-term substitutes to deliver education."

Roberts contends that, instead of focusing so strongly on technology, schools need to address the growing need for hiring qualified personnel.

"Those are issues we ought to be addressing. How do we attract and keep the most qualified people to deliver the education? Those computers are not going to replace the human part of education," Roberts said. "They are not going to replace the instruction in strong, basic skills, the reading, the writing, the computing, the being able to relate to other people. The centerpiece ought to be how are we going to invest in the people we need to deliver the education."

Roberts said it makes little sense to spend the money for a distance-learning classroom, when six school districts within a 20-mile radius of each other could have a program where they could hire a Spanish teacher and nobody would have to drive hundreds of miles.

"I think we are grasping at this as a way to keep every school open, and yet, is it the most beneficial way to deliver education? There isn't any research out that says using a computer enhances student achievement," she added. "And that's our push, we want high test scores, we're into accountability, and yet we're putting all of our eggs into this basket. In the meantime, young people who we want to stay in South Dakota to teach and to work and so on are leaving the state."

Technology is important to the state's education, Roberts said. "It has to be part of the picture, but it's one piece of a very large picture in education, and right now it seems to be the centerpiece of what we're doing."

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