The Senate yesterday approved Senator Phyllis Heineman’s stealth voucher bill, Senate Bill 159, on a 24–11 vote. I note with dismay the two Democrats—Jim Bradford and Bernie Hunhoff—who voted for subsidizing private schools with public dollars. I note with interest the five Republicans—Bob Ewing, Terri Haverly, Deb Peters, Larry Tidemann, and Mike Vehle—who bucked their party’s prevailing Koch-like desire to privatize education.
Senate Bill 159 allocates up to two million dollars each year in tax expenditures to reimburse insurance companies to launder state money for religious instruction. (SB 159 and its proponents use the term “nonpublic schools,” but name me one non-religious private K-12 school in South Dakota.) Senator Heineman and her supporters justify SB 159 as revenue neutral by assuming that these laundered state scholarships will encourage 761 scholarship-eligible low-income kids to switch from public school to private school. As laid out in this fiscal note from the Legislative Research Council, 761 fewer kids in public schools mean 761 fewer kids for whom the schools must allocate Governor Dennis Daugaard’s proposed $4,891.39 per-student allocation (this is pre-Blue Ribbon teacher pay; if HB 1182 and SB 131 become law, these calculations will change). The state picks up 53.8% of that per-student allocation, $2,632. Multiply 761 kids by $2,632, and you conveniently get $2,002,603 in state savings to offset the money we’re handing out in private school scholarships via insurance companies.
The Legislature has a constitutional obligation “to establish and maintain a general and uniform system of public schools wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” It has no obligation to encourage attendance at private schools, which charge tuition and are not equally open to all. To pass a policy subsidizing exclusive private schools at the expense of public schools runs counter to that constitutional mandate.
At no point should the Legislature pass a policy that depends on discouraging students from attending public schools. The Legislature should not erect barriers to attending private school, but in every decision concerning K-12 education, the Legislature’s singular focus should be on making our public school system so awesome that no informed parent would ever choose a private school over a public school based on academic rigor and opportunity. If we are fulfilling our obligation to public schools, private school administrators should be quaking in their boots: “Boy, it’s a good thing these parents will pay money for religious instruction, because the public schools have us beat on teacher quality, variety of classes offered, extra-curricular opportunities, post-secondary placement, and everything else.”
If certain members of the Legislature want more kids to go to good private schools, they should not give those private schools public subsidies. They should do their constitutional duty and pour every public education dollar available into public schools. They should make public schools so good that private schools have rise to the challenge to compete.