O.K., I’ve finally gotten around to viewing the videos of the press conference Rep. Elizabeth May (R-27/Kyle) and other legislators held in Rapid City on July 9 to call for a special session of the Legislature. I have said that the special session call is a distracting effort to revisit the debate over Common Core standards. While legislators in attendance did talk Common Core, they did present some other policy ideas that could come up if the Legislature wanted to have a serious talk about K-12 funding. These legislators appear to agree that the state has shorted K-12 education, that a teacher shortage has resulted from that underfunding, and that we need to put more money in the K-12 pot. They are simply desperate to find any solution other than raising taxes.
Senator Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City) says we should take a bigger chunk of the $514-million Education Enhancement Trust Fund, a creation of tobacco settlement money. The state already takes 4% a year from that fund for education, which appropriation Senator Jensen says as of April 2015 equaled $20.5 million. Senator Jensen says take an additional $20.5 million out of that fund to boost teacher pay. I’d be alarmed at the suggestion—spending more of our interest seems like a sure-fire way to drain an investment fund to have less earnings potential to keep up with inflation, but in FY2014, the Education Enhancement Fund had $70 million in income, a return better than 16%. Senator Jensen may indeed have a viable ongoing funding mechanism for teacher pay raises.
But what Senator Jensen giveth, Senator Jensen also taketh away. Senator Jensen advocates education savings accounts as a way around the limitation on using vouchers to direct public money to private religious schools. In Arizona and Florida, parents get a debit card and can use it on educational expenses:
The state deposits the funds it would have spent educating a given child in public schools into a bank account controlled by his parents. The parents can use those funds — the amount ranges from $5,000 to more than $30,000 a year — to pay for personal tutors, homeschooling workbooks, online classes, sports team fees and many types of therapy, including horseback riding lessons for children with disabilities. They can also spend the money on private school tuition or save some of it for college [Stephanie Simon, “States Weigh Turning Education Funds over to Parents,” Politico, 2015.02.06].
Courts have upheld an Arizona educational savings account program since the direct beneficiary is families, not private schools, so state money is not being used directly to support religion. But if Senator Jensen isn’t increasing revenue, then this plan inevitably shifts resources away from public schools and teacher pay. It also ignores the basic principle of public education: the money we spend on public schools is not about educating our own children and to heck with everyone else. The money we spend on public schools is about maintaining the fabric of society by making sure every child receives a fair and free education.
Amusingly, Senator Jensen cites education report cards from the American Legislative Exchange Council showing that South Dakota is falling further behind in identifying high quality teachers, retaining effective teachers, and removing ineffective teachers… all of which sound like code for ALEC priorities of wrecking education with merit pay and anti-labor provisions. (The most recent ALEC education report card ranks South Dakota 49th for education quality.) Yet from this information, Senator Jensen concludes that
You wonder why we’re losing teachers in South Dakota. One, we’ve got to pay them adequate pay, and then two, we’ve got to stop mandating these common core standards that are just a weight around the ankles of our teachers, and we need to set them free to teach and do what they do best [Senator Phil Jensen, press conference, Rapid City, South Dakota, 2015.07.09, timestamp 1:44].
Senator Jensen’s conclusions find no support in the 2014 ALEC education report, which speaks dismissively of efforts to raise teacher pay in Chicago and advocates rigorous standards and testing for accountability. But if Senator Jensen wants to ignore what ALEC is actually saying and argue for making teachers’ lives better, let’s not get in his way!
Rep. Lance Russell (R-30/Hot Springs) asks “Why not consider Common Core?” Rep. Russell estimates that the state is spending $20 million to $25 million on Common Core. He says taking that topic off the table is foolish, since our standards and testing could fund a quarter of the pay increase we need to get our teachers to 38th in the nation. I applaud Rep. Russell for getting off the tinfoil concerns about Common Core as a socialist/Obama plot and focusing on the fiscal impacts. But Rep. Russell assumes here that we would get rid of state standards and testing completely, not just revert to some other set of standards. Alas, I’m the only person I know who has advocated getting rid of state standards completely. If Rep. Russell thinks banning Common Core means instant savings, he’s got some persuading to do.
Moving to bigger fiscal horses, Rep. Russell says the Governor and Legislature have “starved the school districts” while prioritizing other less valuable projects. Rep. Russell points to $30 million for Build South Dakota and highlights the money dedicated to ESL classes and housing for immigrant workers drawn here by industries supported by the EB-5 program. Rep. Russell also points to low-income housing for this increasing immigrant population, additional parole and probation officers to supervise the increasing number of felons released into communities by Governor Daugaard’s criminal justice reform, and more state employees hired to comply with ObamaCare as proof that the state’s budget priorities are out of whack.
Rep. Russell proposes dedicating half of the state’s sales tax to education to add $50 million to state K-12 funding. Add savings from cutting standards, and we get $75 million of the $80 million Rep. Russell says we need to raise our teacher pay to 38th in the nation.
Rep. Russell says that Hot Springs lost six good, experienced teachers in one year to Wyoming. Rep. Russell says that dedicating more money to teacher pay is “how we keep our teachers.”
Rep. Lynne DiSanto (R-35/Rapid City) offers no concrete policy proposals. It’s not even clear that she agrees with her colleagues’ suggestions for putting more money in the K-12 pot. Trying to spin the failed Rapid City opt-out vote as a sign that she and her fellow naysayers believe in funding education adequately, Rep. DiSanto says the problem with our school budgets is a spending issue, not a revenue issue. I guess that could mean she agrees with Rep. Russell’s point about budget priorities.
Senator Jensen and Representative Russell acknowledge that the teacher shortage is real and that higher teacher pay is the solution. That by itself is a victory for common sense in the South Dakota Legislature.
These two conservative Republicans also put a few good ideas on the flow. If they could mobilize a majority of legislators to raise $75 million from existing state funds to raise teacher pay without draining the K-12 pool with stealth vouchers, I’d be all for a special session of the Legislature. Now let’s see if Jensen and Russell can make that case to their colleagues.