Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Nearly every participant in a legislative forum held last week in Vermillion voiced overwhelming support for at least attempting to do more, funding-wise, for education in the state.

In general, District 17 House candidates Judy Clark, B.J. Nesselhuf, H. Junior Engbrecht and Maxine Johnson, and District 17 Senate candidates John "Joe" Reedy and Donna Schafer indicated that education should be a priority in the state, that teacher salaries should be improved, and that school districts should be given better means to make capital improvements.

All of the candidates were also in virtual agreement on a legislative proposal that would forgive student loans of men and women who agree to teach in South Dakota.

It's easy to beat the drum in support of our state's educators. In so many ways, their unique role of teaching our children, year after year, in their classrooms ultimately means they are defining the future of South Dakota.

There's no question that educators are doing an excellent job in South Dakota. There's no question that, compared to their peers in other states, they aren't paid as much.

Perhaps it is time to recognize, however, that low teacher pay isn't necessarily an indication that South Dakotans don't value education or care about the important role that teachers play in the scheme of things in our state.

On the contrary, one would have to be living in a cave to not know the plight of teachers in the state. The South Dakota Education Association has done an effective job for years now of letting the public know, year after year, that, once again, teacher pay in the state is among the worst in the nation.

The state is facing other challenges. It's becoming more and more difficult to attract new teachers and retain those currently employed by our school districts.

Many of the state's school districts are also trying to deal with aging, crowded buildings that don't have the capability to house the programs and new technology of this day and age.

So, naturally, the best thing a candidate can say is that she or he fully supports doing everything possible to improve the condition of education in South Dakota.

Right?

Not necessarily. Don't get us wrong. We recognize the importance of an effective public education system in this state.

But those views have to be tempered with reality. It's easy for a candidate to state that he or she will fight hard for education.

The tough part is defining to voters what those battle plans may be, especially in the current political climate being experienced here. Depending on the decisions of voters Nov. 7, South Dakota could lose two major funding sources � the video lottery and the estate or "death" tax.

The loss of those sources of revenue will certainly complicate any effort to meet the progressive education goals that are so easily espoused by candidates.

To be factually accurate, one would have to admit that there's a good reason teacher pay in South Dakota traditionally ranks at the bottom in the nation. We're a poor state. It's as simple as that.

And what that means is South Dakota teachers don't have a difficult time finding other people in the state from other professions to commiserate with in regards to low pay.

According to a recent Associated Press news report,

South Dakota had the nation's second-lowest average annual pay in 1998, at $22,754.

That statistic is based on the earnings of people covered by employment insurance and is considered the best estimate of wages of those who work for others.

On the other hand, South Dakota in 1998 ranked 32nd in per capita income, which measures all income earned in the state divided by the state's population. It includes not only wages, but also earnings by investors, business owners and farm owners.

It appears that teachers in South Dakota are in good company. Many citizens in the state don't earn as much as their counterparts elsewhere in the nation.

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