Between the Lines: Things to discuss around the cracker barrel Saturday

I received an e-mail from the governor on Monday. Not from his place of employment – you know, that office in the Capitol building in Pierre.

This came from him via his campaign office, "Daugaard for South Dakota." The letter begins like this:

"As you may know, I proposed an education bill this year that shifts our focus to student achievement and invests new dollars in teachers. My plan proposes to pay more to top teachers, to incentivize teachers to enter the high-need fields of math and science, and to phase out continuing contract, commonly called "tenure," by eliminating it for new teachers.

My proposal started a discussion about student achievement. Republicans in the legislature joined that discussion and led a process of seeking input – from educators, constituents, and legislators in both parties. Based on what they heard, they offered an amendment that keeps with my goal of affecting student achievement. Through this process, we arrived at an even better bill."

This "even better bill" and the version that preceded it have dominated the news since the governor announced his plan last month. This legislation, HB 1234, passed 41-28 in the South Dakota House Monday after passionate debate. The bill now heads to the Senate.

The reason for the governor's e-mail to me was to ask for my support of the bill. I'm sure he blanketed the state with this somewhat impersonal electronic message, maybe just to try to connect with us citizens as this legislation moves through the process to eventually become law.

Turns out he didn't need my support with that 41-28 vote. But it sounds like the bill wasn't simply rubber-stamped by all of the governor's GOP colleagues. A strong majority of Republicans in the House supported the measure, but it faced fire from both left and right during a vigorous debate on Monday.

Even though the governor has worked hard to get all of his ducks in a row concerning this bill, it appears that no Democrats are in support of it, and many of his fellow Republicans couldn't cast an affirmative vote for it, either.

I'm really trying to get a grip on what the governor truly hopes to accomplish with this legislation. It's hard to argue with any effort that has a goal of increasing student achievement. I find it a bit difficult to think, however, that there is any public school system in the state that doesn't focus on trying to have students be as successful as they can in the classroom.

In his State of the State address, Daugaard said, "South Dakota needs to focus on investing in teachers. Our goal in South Dakota is to increase student achievement, and our focus must be on attracting and retaining great teachers. We need clear standards, rigorous measurement, and rewards for excellence."

His stated goal is to improve future student achievement in our public schools by dangling bonuses to new math and science teachers, giving a merit pay bonus to one out of five teachers deemed "excellent" by their administrators, and by eliminating continuing contracts. He hopes, apparently, that South Dakota students will then start to score higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized testing, and the ACT test.

The governor contends that in recent years our students' standardized test scores have begun to sag, and he emphasized this statement as the solution to that in his speech last month: "The key to obtaining high achievement in the classroom is not more spending. It is effective teachers. Let me say that again: The key to obtaining high achievement for our students is to have great teachers," Daugaard said.

It may also be argued that the key to obtaining high achievement is to promote a sense of financial stability in our state's public school system. That hasn't existed for a long time now.

The state has hardly been a great help to public schools in recent years. If the governor is truly interested in improving education in our fine state, he'd be working at playing a bit of "catch up" to try to get schools a bit close to even in the area of school funding.

For nearly the last 20 years now, state law requires that state aid increase by 3.5 percent or the rate of inflation, which ever is less, annually. For the last two, and it appears for this year, too, the Legislature and governor have and will fragrantly be breaking that law.

Two years ago, school districts received zippo in state aid from the state – no increase at all. Last year, it appeared they were going to receive a 10 percent cut. Thanks to a last minute scramble and the use of one time funds, that cut was reduced to somewhere around 7 or 8 percent.

I don't have the state aid figure that's been discussed for this year at my fingertips, but I believe it's been stated that any increase in state aid is expected to be miniscule.

School board members and administrators have been struggling since the latter years of the Rounds administration just to try to keep their districts' budgets in the black because the state has decided it's okay to break the law when it comes to school funding.

Many, many school districts, including the Vermillion School District, have cut to the bone and been forced to opt out of the property tax freeze to continue to offer a quality education. Which means local taxpayers are taking on a greater and greater burden when it comes to funding education while the state abdicates its responsibility.

HB 1234, if passed in its current form, is going to force local school districts to meet a complex and costly set of new requirements. It's going to be complicated and no doubt confusing for schools and their staffs to try to learn exactly what this law, if approved, will require. And it would be nice if someone would float a dollar figure for South Dakota taxpayers who will have to pay for this. How much will this legislation cost us?

And will our schools ever see a bit more state aid come their way from Pierre – you know, to make up for the freezes and cuts they've had to endure in recent years?

There will be a legislative cracker barrel meeting at 10 a.m. this Saturday, Feb. 18, in the Vermillion City Hall. I urge you to plan to attend. Perhaps Reps. Jones and Boomgarden and Sen. Nygaard can help answer these questions.

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