The Republicans candidates for District 3 Senate and House spoke on education to not quite two dozen neighbors at the Northern State University Noon Forum yesterday. Rep. Dan Kaiser, Drew Dennert, and Rep. Al Novstrup managed to muster more than two minutes of comment on a topic that isn’t their forté, but amidst some useful observations, our Republican candidates lobbed several distractions from the basic mission of educating young South Dakotans.
In his brief opening remarks, Rep. Dan Kaiser, candidate for reëlection to the House, spoke of his efforts to end Common Core. Rep. Kaiser opposes the “top-down” nature of Common Core; in later comments, he said he would prefer that local superintendents be able to set curriculum standards. That position runs a little at odds with his own 2015 House Bill 1223, which proposed replacing Common Core with the previous set of standards that the state imposed on all local school districts.
Remember, I supported Rep. Kaiser in that effort, testifying in Pierre that state-mandated standards don’t make teachers better and use up time and effort that could be better spent working directly with students. I still endorse the position Rep. Kaiser expressed yesterday: any superintendent and teaching staff worth their salt know what they should be teaching their students. Any set of state standards serves mostly as an exercise in paper-pushing.
An NSU education professor rose to assure Rep. Kaiser and the audience that Common Core standards help students develop critical-thinking skills. She said NSU’s teacher-training graduates know Common Core and will be able to teach those standards well.
Rep. Al Novstrup, who is running to defend the Senate seat his son is leaving, opened his remarks with a paean to local control. Rep. Novstrup said keeping decisions as close to home as possible is a basic Republican philosophy. Ever the multiculturalist, Rep. Novstrup said lawmakers in Washington, D.C., don’t understand the culture of Faith, South Dakota, where bringing guns to school in one’s pickup so one can go hunting later is a great idea, versus the culture of Chicago, where student-vehicle gun racks are perhaps less culturally appropriate.
Rep. Novstrup said his belief in local control leads him to defer to the experts in the field. This comment is hard to square with Novstrup’s position on past education bills, like 2012 HB 1234, which he supported despite overwhelming expert testimony and evidence that one of that bill’s core reforms, merit pay for teachers, does not work.
Rep. Novstrup said his faith in local control is not absolute, but he said he and his fellow Republicans apply that principle 99 times out of 100. Hmmm… less local control for counties in CAFO permitting, less local for schools in accommodating transgender students, no local control for counties over sales tax, allowing local control over capital outlay levies but not equal local control over other levies, less local control when the Governor wants an education reform bill, our Republican Legislature has a long record of squelching local control, especially over education, when it suits the GOP agenda. “Local control” is more often just a politically conditional slogan trotted out as an excuse to cut funding and avoid direct responsibility for really bad ideas like carrying guns in school.
Oh yeah, we’re talking about education….
House Bill 1182 and Teacher Pay
Professor Jon Schaff asked the Republican candidates to address 2016 House Bill 1182, the half-penny sales tax passed this year to increase K-12 teacher pay. Rep. Dan Kaiser, who missed all but the last day of the 2016 Session due to family illness, said he probably would have voted against this teacher-pay funding. He said he had issues with whether the money raised would actually go to teachers.
New House candidate Drew Dennert declined to give a definite answer, but he said he leaned No on HB 1182. Dennert said he’s all for increasing teacher pay, but he sees unfairness in funding that increase by raising the tax on agricultural equipment but not on other vehicles. Dennert said he’s not sure the funding formula (actually part of SB 131, not HB 1182) was good and it did not give small schools a good deal (true, says Tripp-Delmont).
Rep. Novstrup said he voted for HB 1182, but then spent no time talking about why he voted for the bill, how the bill works, or how it impacts education. Instead, Rep. Novstrup dwelled on himself himself and how he felt the pressure and the great tension of the debate. He admitted he did not take a leading role in the effort to raise teacher pay: “Sometimes I lead, sometimes I listen.” He said he frustrated many lobbyists and interested voters by refusing to take a position on the sales-tax increase until the actual vote and only telling questioners before the vote that he was “listening.” I would suggest their frustration was justified: the Blue Ribbon K-12 task force plan was available for review for over three months before the House voted on HB 1182 in February. Anyone who waited until February to start “listening” was, to put it generously, taking a passive approach to learning about the most urgent policy priority of the 2016 Session.
Cost of Higher Education
Offered a question about how to check rising tuition, Rep. Novstrup joked about proposals for free tuition, then non-responded that maybe kids can save money by getting books online. To an audience suggestion that South Dakota should stop shifting the burden to students and get back to carrying more of the cost of higher education, Rep. Novstrup dodged, saying health care costs are eating up the state budget pie.
Statistical note: South Dakota has historically put a larger share of the cost of higher education on students than the national average. In 1989, student tuition covered 24.5% of the cost of public higher education nationwide but 36.8% in South Dakota. The student share of that tab has increased pretty much everywhere since then, to 47.1% nationwide and 66.8% in South Dakota. A professor who spent nine years in the Indiana university system said he witnessed that state’s cuts in support for higher education. Those cuts drive universities to rely more on grants and research funding, which increasingly comes from corporate and foreign interests. The professor said more public funding is needed to check that outside money and keep universities focused on the public good, not private or foreign agendas. None of the candidates addressed that issue.
Rep. Kaiser did address the overall cost question by suggesting our universities suffer from administrative bloat. Dr. Schaff seconded that observation, saying that the Board of Regents itself employs so many analysts and other staff that its administrative budget could fund all of NSU’s operations. Rep. Novstrup evaded responsibility, saying that it’s hard to craft a bill and instead preferring that we just have “conversations” with the Board of Regents about increasing productivity.
Rep. Kaiser cited a 2012 speech by President Barack Obama saying that federal subsidies cause tuition to go up. Rep. Kaiser failed to note that President Obama proposed not ending government support for higher education but targeting that support to campuses that control costs. President Obama also called for increasing federal grants and loans and reducing subsidies to the banks that cash in on student loans.
Invoking President Obama signaled that it was time to run away from the specifics of education in South Dakota again and blow federal dog whistles again. Rep. Kasier said tuition inflation is tied to overall inflation, which he said comes from a tax-and-spend federal government that is “crippled with debt.” The feds are “destroying the value of our money” with the “hidden tax” of inflation. Dennert jumped in, saying that inflation is a big problem, what with the Federal Reserve printing money without restraint.
Professor Schaff noted that the Consumer Price Index is around a relatively low 2%. The most recent release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the CPI over the last 12 months rose 1.1%. Another professor in the room, Dr. Steven Usitalo, said inflation is “largely nonexistent.”
Merit Pay Stinks!
Linking to the discussion of administrative bloat, Forum organizer Dr. Art Marmorstein said that the merit pay scheme mandated by the Legislature has become a “bureaucratic nightmare.” Dr. Marmorstein said performance reviews used to be much simpler affairs but now, as the basis for pay raises, require far more documentation. Dr. Usitalo supported that statement, saying he has several hundred pages of evaluations to review. Dr. Marmorstein urged the Republican candidates to get rid of merit pay.
None of the Republican candidates offered a response on that topic.
Consolidate and Close?
Dr. Usitalo asked if the decreasing youth population justifies asking whether we have too many campuses. Joking shushes and nervous laughter rose from the audience. Rep. Novstrup said enrollment is up… which is true over the last two decades but ignores the six-year post-recession flatline. Dr. Usitalo noted that enrollment increases rely on recruiting out-of-state students.
Another audience member suggested that the Regents could save money by closing “university centers,” the satellite campuses established ten years ago to serve larger towns without universities. Rep. Novstrup explained that we established the university centers to help working students in large non-university towns get degrees. He said that plan did not anticipate the swift growth of online education. It seems that, just like Amazon, online education can meet demand without expensive brick-and-mortar facilities in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, but Rep. Novstrup says its hard to abandon nice new buildings. (Two words, Al: sunk cost.)
Amendment R: Vo-Tech Governance
Local GOP veteran Duane Riedel called for the defeat of Amendment R, saying that there’s no need to create a new bureaucracy (and new expense!) to do work that the school boards in Watertown, Sioux Falls, Mitchell, and Rapid City are doing just fine right now. Riedel’s Republican standard-bearers appeared to disagree. Rep. Kaiser acknowledged that passage of R could increase costs, but he seemed to lean toward trusting the Legislature to do the follow-up. Dennert said R isn’t perfect, but the current system of vo-tech governance by entities other than the Board of Regents violates the state’s constitution (true!). Rep. Novstrup said voting Yes on R allows the Legislature to leave the system as it is. Besides, said Rep. Novstrup, the Board of Regents has “no desire” to run the vo-techs, and the vo-techs have no desire to be so run. Rep. Novstrup said no one wants a Regental–vo-tech marriage, to which Riedel responded, “Get the shotgun out.”
Aberdeen resident and graduate student Zach Anderson asked if the expansion of distance learning degrades local control and promotes school consolidation. The incumbent legislators said the opposite is true. Rep. Kaiser said distance learning allows small, remote districts like Faith to offer more learning opportunities. He also suggested that distance learning provides useful competition… although against just whom Faith is competing against went unstated. Rep. Novstrup said distance learning helps small schools stay open. He called distance learning a “life raft” for small schools and a “home run” for NSU, which provides e-learning services statewide. Apparently agreeing that distance learning is good, Dennert said he opposes school consolidation and sees small towns as the historical “lifeblood” of South Dakota.
The distance learning discussion was one area where District 3’s Republican Legislative candidates spoke directly about the active role the Legislature can play in funding services that directly improve educational opportunities for students in South Dakota. The GOP candidates seemed less inclined to take a leading role in improving educational opportunities in their discussions of university centers, the bureaucracy of merit pay, the need for better K-12 teacher pay, or the state’s interest in supporting higher education.
We’ll see if Democratic District 3 candidates Brooks Briscoe, Nikki Bootz, and yours truly can address South Dakota education issues any more directly at the next NSU Noon Forum, Wednesday, October 19, at the Beulah Williams Library. (By the way, Dr. Marmorstein serves bagels! Free chow!)