Rep. Lee Schoenbeck (R-5/Watertown) isn’t heeding the Governor’s admonition to shush until the Governor’s Blue Ribbon K-12 panel issues its policy proposals. Rep. Schoenbeck offers his own eight-page epistle on why and how we should increase funding for our K-12 schools. The Watertown Republican recognizes South Dakota’s fundamental K-12 problem—not enough teachers, not enough money—but he pulls the money we need from the wrong pot and throws that money at the wrong policies.
First, let’s give Rep. Schoenbeck credit for laying out a relatively thoughtful and detailed policy paper. He aspires to literature, opening with a fine quote about the need to educate the youth in democracy “someday to be the rulers of the greatest country on earth,” and closing with a Spartan call to the Blue Ribboneers to come up with a workable policy or die trying. He seats his discussion in what he portrays as a proud South Dakota history of putting education first, noting that we located our first public university during our first territorial legislative session, while the Pilgrims dinked around shooting turkeys for 19 years before founding Harvard. Schoenbeck observes that just two decades after statehood, South Dakota had 4,518 schoolhouses, which I’d wager is well over four times as many instructional centers as we have today. (Hmm… if a fledging state could afford so many school buildings, why do residents of our now much richer state so often argue for more school consolidation?)
Then Rep. Schoenbeck gets to business:
Today, there is one obvious challenge. We don’t have enough high school graduates interested in going into the field of education, we aren’t recruiting enough college graduates into our K-12 systems, and we aren’t retaining enough of the educators who are now teaching our children. We are losing out to the competition in the marketplace—and we are better free market capitalists than that! We need to create incentives and assurances in the educator compensation market, so that parents, students, graduates, and educators see the South Dakota education market as an economically fulfilling option as a career.
…Average educator salaries in surrounding states—our market—are higher—even after adjusting for taxes and cost of living [Rep. Lee Schoenbeck, “South Dakota’s Challenge,” posted by Bob Mercer, “The Schoenbeck Report,” Pure Pierre Politics, 2015.07.22].
When Lee Schoenbeck, Mr. Republican, agrees with this liberal blog that (1) South Dakota’s teacher shortage is real and (2) it’s caused by low pay for which (3) low taxes and cost of living do not compensate, we can safely say that portion of the debate is over. The Blue Ribboneers must raise teacher pay. We now debate how.
Before we debate, let us revel further on Rep. Schoenbeck’s agreement with this blog’s longstanding education advocacy:
…every one of us understands that the quality of life in this state we love, now and into the future, will be driven largely by the quality of the education we deliver to the children and grandchildren of our neighbors, families, friends and constituents.
…the most fundamental challenge will be in changing our mindset about the financial worth of an educator—a mindset change that the market says we must learn to survive, if survival means delivering a quality education to our children and grandchildren.
Right on, Lee. Right on.
It’s too bad Rep. Schoenbeck then goes wrong on policy.
Rep. Schoenbeck proposes a one-cent seasonal sales and use tax, in effect from May 1 to October 31 (to catch tourists and hunters), to raise $123,210,000. Schoenbeck chooses to further milk our regressive sales tax due to blinders he styles as political realism. Schoenbeck says voters won’t support higher property taxes or new personal or corporate income tax. Dang, and in his opening lines, Schoenbeck was sounding like a leader, a statesman who could rally voters to overcome past biases (promoted largely by Schoenbeck’s own party) and support a bold vision to preserve our most vital state function.
Schoenbeck also defaults to the sales tax because “a tax source paid in part by non-residents is more attractive.” Immediately after that justification, Schoenbeck writes, “South Dakota needs to make a strong statement on educator pay.” The statement we make with a tourist/hunter tax is that teachers may be important, but they aren’t worth money out of our own pockets. Reliance on outsiders undermines Schoenbeck’s philosophical call for South Dakotans to change “our mindset about the financial worth of an educator.”
Still, $123,210,000 is a lot of money. Applied to teacher pay, we could raise every South Dakota teacher’s salary by $13,400, which would vault us to 23rd in the nation, just a thousand bucks shy of Minnesota.
But Rep. Schoenbeck doesn’t spend that money on teacher pay. Here are his seven annual investments (to his credit, he uses the word investment):
- Tuition freeze for Regental campuses ($5,555,000) and vo-techs ($910,000)
- Increase Opportunity Scholarship $1,000 per recipient ($3,800,000)
- Increase vo-tech per-student allocation by $834 ($5,000,000)
- Adjust Regental funding formula ($3,000,000)
- Provide grants for private schools and instructional supplies ($4,000,000)
- Increase K-12 per-student allocation by up to $560 ($73,153,682)
- Place excess funds in reserve.
What happened to the teacher shortage? Seven plan planks, and only one directly tackles the teacher shortage. Freezing tuition, increasing the Opportunity Scholarship, and boosting vo-tech training do not target teachers and do not change the comparative economics that deter prospective teachers from entering K-12 education and deter new teachers from staying. Plank 5 is stealth vouchers, recycled from SB 189, which Schoenbeck backed in the Legislature last winter and which Senator Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City) is also trying to revive. That plan only drains money from public education and makes it harder to recruit teachers. And why We would sock more money away in our burgeoning reserves escapes me.
Rep. Schoenbeck directs less than half of his tax increase, $50,000,000, to K-12 education. He appears to scrounge up another $23,153,682 by eliminating categories from the K-12 funding formula and preserving only half of the small school adjustment. But if I’m reading Schoenbeck’s plan right, that $23M isn’t new money; it’s a redistribution of existing K-12 money.
Schoenbeck further sandbags the new K-12 aid by requiring that schools spend 10% of that $50 million on merit pay for no more than 10% of faculty in each school district. (Funny: Schoenbeck won’t back an income tax because he says voters reject it, but he forgets that voters rejected merit pay in 2012.) He would further penalize school districts by making them pay the cost of remedial college classes for their graduates at Regental schools and vo-techs. In the best case scenario, in which no K-12 grads need remedial classes, Schoenbeck appears to be giving K-12 schools just $45 million in new revenue, enough to raise our average pay teacher pay by $4,900—not bad, but only 48th in the nation and not catching any of our neighbors.
Rep. Schoenbeck passes up a fiscal opportunity to make South Dakota teacher pay competitive immediately. He proposes a statewide salary schedule mandating a minimum teacher salary of $39,000 by 2018, $45,000 by 2022, and $50,000 by 2026. Schoenbeck justifies the focus on starting salaries by arguing that “Compensation during the early years is the most critical factor for recruiting educators.” Raising pay for veteran teachers appears to be less urgent for Schoenbeck, who says South Dakota has “the best funded public retirement system in America.”
Unfortunately, Rep. Schoenbeck mistimes those minimum salary levels with a mandate that all teachers be “Highly Qualified” by 2018. The Schoenbeck plan demands higher quality in our teaching pool (according to Schoenbeck, the state received 585 request to hire teachers who don’t meet the “Highly Qualified” standard, a bit over 6% of our K-12 teaching workforce), in two years, but he doesn’t fully kick in the competitive salaries necessary to attract those qualified teachers for another eight years.
Schoenbeck offers one entirely non-fiscal proposal. Concerned that in-service days during the school year enhance the perception that teachers don’t work hard enough all year, Schoenbeck suggests that school administrators “adopt flexible programs for educators to do curriculum work, pursue advanced degrees, and deal with staff training and remedial classes” during the summer. Doing in-service in the summer, says Schoenbeck, would mean we wouldn’t lose instructional days during the school year. This plank appears to be unnecessary: school districts already have the freedom to set any calendar of instructional and in-service days they like. This plank by itself also appears not to make any more money available for teachers. It sounds more like a proposal to increase the work requirements for teachers to qualify for any pay raise from the Legislature, an unnecessary quid pro quo that does nothing to improve our competitiveness with other states for teacher candidates.
We should commend Rep. Schoenbeck for issuing his K-12 funding plan. Rep. Schoenbeck agrees that yes, there really is a teacher shortage, that yes, it matters, and that yes, we have to spend money to solve it. Rep. Schoenbeck has the guts to propose a tax increase. Those statements are useful in the K-12 funding debate. Rep. Schoenbeck’s plan is useful, not as the policy we want, but as an example of how we need to focus even more on the problem at hand and not get distracted by general tuition freezes, vo-tech education, vouchers, and other hobby horses from the central problem of raising South Dakota’s teacher pay out of the national cellar.
Related Reading: Michael Larson agrees that Rep. Schoenbeck has done the state a service with his meditation on the teacher shortage and his effort to concoct a solution. The Republican cheering section has yet to weigh in on the Schoenbeck report, since the Schoenbeck report, like all real policy discussions, requires real reading and thinking.