Examine both the benefits and costs

Examine both the benefits and costs
Ahh, January ? the time of the year when South Dakotans learn just how much our elected officials have been thinking about what concerns us. You know. Taxes. The education of our children. Our state's future.

No one can claim that Gov. Mike Rounds, his cabinet, and other state leaders decided to simply ignore some problems this year in the hope that they would simply go away.

One can't help but be impressed with the 2010 Education Initiative that has been introduced.

The initiative is a series of specific goals and action plans intended to improve the state's education system by the year 2010. The plan consists of three major initiatives:

  • Starting Strong, which targets kids from age 3 to grade 3.
  • Finishing Strong, which focuses on the high school and post-secondary experience.
  • Staying Strong, which targets teachers, American Indian issues and financial resources.

    Several highlights under these three major areas include:

  • Preschool, which seeks to coordinate preschool services for 4-year-olds.
  • Laptop Initiative, which provides incentive money for school districts to initiate one-to-one laptop programs for high school students.
  • Teacher Compensation Assistance Program, a plan designed to assist school districts in enhancing teacher compensation.

    As we indicated earlier, we're impressed. At the same time, however, we can't help but be a bit concerned. It's easy, and at times it's even necessary, to look at "gifts" from the government with a jaundiced eye.

    South Dakota school boards have been trying their best for several years now to provide the type of quality education so boldly proclaimed in the 2010 Education Initiative. They've been hampered, year after year, by the education funding package ultimately approved annually by the South Dakota Legislature and the governor's office.

    It is our hope that the initiative won't end up becoming a costly bureaucratic nightmare for local school districts that are already struggling simply to make ends meet year after year.

    We'll use the laptop initiative as an example. We have no doubt that there are many students across the state who simply don't have access to a computer.

    That's not the case in our district. Survey results indicate that 91 percent of VHS students have a computer at home, and 85 percent of those students are able to log on to the Internet.

    The remainder of students without either a) a computer or b) Internet access have opportunities to log on to computers owned by the school district.

    We need to recall that South Dakota schools are among the "best wired" in the country, thanks to efforts implemented by former Gov. William Janklow. He utilized low cost prison trusty crews to do the work.

    "I guess the question I have at this point," Superintendent Mark Froke told the Vermillion School Board Monday, "is will the money that's spent on the laptops have an impact on meeting the standards we're required to meet as a school district? I think the jury is still out on that."

    It's not that our district has an apparent lack of a need for laptops that's disturbing. State officials plan to spend $13 million as part of a pilot program in 10 to 20 pilot school districts the first year � $9 million of that amount is classified as federal "E-rate" money used for infrastructure purchases. The remaining $4 million will come from funds originally earmarked to help school districts with declining enrollments make ends meet.

    Once the program is fully operational, all school districts, it appears, will be expected to participate financially. For every dollar provided by the state, schools will need to pony up $2 to lease the laptops.

    That means nearly $40 million will be spent in the coming years to boot up this program in our schools.

    "The unfortunate thing with the $4 million in declining enrollment money is the districts that are already struggling, and can't afford the laptops," said Nick Merrigan, school board member, "are going to miss out on what should be their share of that $4 million."

    "Our cost match to the program would be $266,000," Froke said, "and for us to do that would completely wipe out what we have in capital outlay."

    The 2010 Education Initiative looks so good on paper. Before we give it a stamp of approval, however, we all need to carefully examine the benefits � and the costs � of its goals.

    The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net

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