Senate Passes Stealth Vouchers, Against Constitutional Duty to Make Public Education the Best

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.

13 Responses to Senate Passes Stealth Vouchers, Against Constitutional Duty to Make Public Education the Best

  1. Darin Larson

    Only in the bizarro world of the state legislature would they be able justify taking public funds for religious purposes. I guess if its for their religious purpose its ok.

    Then there is the fiction of it being revenue neutral. Their assumptions are the definition of fuzzy math. And assuming for a second that it is revenue neutral for the state, don’t we have to ask how this is going to effect individual schools who will be out state revenue? I doubt it will be revenue neutral to the state, but it certainly won’t be revenue neutral to public schools. Losing a couple of students in each class to private school will reduce the funding for the public school. What part of this don’t people understand?

    People already get federal income tax advantages for contributions to charitable and religious organizations for scholarships etc.. Do we have to have the state government helping subsidize private religious education as well?

    I’m quite disappointed in Bernie Hunhoff. He talked about this not being a slippery slope. I don’t think the slope could be more steep or slippery when you start subsidizing private schools with state dollars. How about we wait until you adequately fund public education before you start subsidizing private education? Crazy thought, I know.

  2. The State’s duty is to support public schools. Private schools are an elective families make on their own for their own reasons and they should accept fully responsibility for these decisions including picking up the full tab.

  3. Let’s hope that the governor has the good sense to veto this bill.

  4. John Kennedy Claussen

    Less money for the public schools, while renters are being asked to subsidize the property owners with an increase in the sales tax. Are we sure this “new money” will really go to our schools, public that is?

  5. I’ve said it before and will say it again. This bill has little to do with teacher pay. Teachers, yes. Get them on board for teacher pay and the roof comes off. Hackery at its best. Like Cory is more than tired of hearing me say, “get the teachers to back an income tax or reformed less aggressive structure in SD and it can happen.”

    Like they said long ago, one is born every minute.

  6. mikeyc, that's me!

    I’m curious what Bernie Hunhoff’s take is on this bill. I’m sure he has a good reason for voting the way he did. Our children attended private (Catholic) school and it was the best thing we ever did. Keep in mind, that in addition to tuition, we still payed property taxes to support public schools. And we still do.

  7. Douglas Wiken

    Check the religious affiliations of the supporters.

  8. Jake Cummings

    mikeyc, I was curious about Sen. Hunhoff’s rationale as well, and this Daily Republic article sheds some light on his perspective:

    This article from Chicago illuminates difficulties one can encounter when attempting to assess ed. institutions’ diversity: It also mentions this op-ed from Rob Reich:, which underscores concerns with how incentives like those passed here can exacerbate educational inequity.

    My concerns would be whether SD’s proposed approach would truly expand opportunity for previously disadvantaged students/schools or whether it would simply allow the already high achievers to widen the achievement gap.

  9. Jake, thanks for that link from MDR. Senator Hunhoff makes an interesting comment about wanting these “scholarships” to bring diversity to private schools, but I would contend that my critique applies to that argument as well: the Legislature has no obligation to improve private schools, not in finances, not in diversity, not in anything. The Legislature’s job is to offer the best public education possible. If private schools aren’t sufficiently diverse, that’s their problem to solve.

  10. Les, this post is focused on the stealth voucher plan, not the public K-12 teacher pay plan. But I’ll ask you to review what O and I are saying on this topic: we are funding the pending teacher pay increases and the rest of state government the wrong way. We need to overhaul our tax system, but the current Legislature will not do that. If we can win teacher pay raises, then teachers need to respond by joining me in electing new legislators and advocating for tax reform in 2017.

  11. Jake Cummings

    Cory, I share your belief about public education being a legislative priority; I would say it should always be in the top two. However, I think educational opportunity should be a related concern. If a compelling case can be made that innovations like these can increase diversity and opportunity, I would possibly be willing to support them. However, I am not nearly as far down that road as Sen. Hunhoff seems to be.

  12. That’s a fair point, Jake: the state has a legitimate interest in diversity and opportunity in education. However, our mandate is to promote those interests by offering universal public education. We need not reach over to prop up private schools to offer what we must offer in the public schools.

  13. mikeyc, that's me!

    Thanks for the link, Jake.
    After reading the full text of the bill, I worry that it creates another opportunity for wrongdoing as in Platte.