District 3 GOP Candidates Discuss Education at NSU Forum

Republicans Rep. Dan Kaiser, Drew Dennert, and Rep. Al Novstrup speak at NSU Noon Forum, 2016.10.13.
Republicans Rep. Dan Kaiser, Drew Dennert, and Rep. Al Novstrup speak at NSU Noon Forum, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 2016.10.13.

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.

Common Core

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.

Local Control

Al adopts his opponent's style of moving his arms more when he speaks; Dan and Drew look on approvingly.
Al adopts his opponent’s style of moving his arms more when he speaks; Dan and Drew look on approvingly.

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.

"O.K., what we meant was, hyperinflation is right around the corner, just like it has been since Barack Obama took office...."
O.K., what we meant was, hyperinflation is right around the corner, just like it has been since Barack Obama took office….

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.”

Distance Education

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!)


20 Responses to District 3 GOP Candidates Discuss Education at NSU Forum

  1. Did Kaiser say whether he’s going to show up to work this session if he’s re-elected? Has anyone asked him that, because it seems to be a real possibility he’s going to skip the work and take the paycheck.

  2. Donald Pay

    If students are paying most of the costs of higher education, why not abolish the Board of Regents? If the state can’t cover at least half the cost they have no business running these institutions.

  3. mike from iowa

    Not all wingnuts are against education. Eric Drumpf said women that don’t like being harassed should become kindergarten teachers. Should make a great teacher recruiting slogan.

  4. Don Coyote

    I have to say that I’m astonished that a professor with a PhD doesn’t understand that the CPI is only a weighted averaged of a number of indices. Current inflation in college tuition is approximately 3% not the 1.1% of the CPI as suggested. Also the 10-year historical rate of tuition increases is an even higher 5%. Hardly “largely nonexistent” Dr Usitalo.

    The elephant in the room our academicians and politicians didn’t address is that the average time a student is taking to complete what was traditionally a four degree is now closer to six. This adds tremendous costs to the degree and is indicative of a poorer quality and unprepared student being recruited. A student that will most likely have to spend time taking remedial courses, courses that are paid for but with no college credit given.

  5. Robert McTaggart

    Take challenging courses in high school. In particular stop avoiding math. If you can get through calculus prior to college, on-time completion of a STEM degree that facilitates a higher-paying career is very easy to do. Challenging courses are often available via SDBOR institutions via dual credit or distance learning.

    Budget constraints also mean that some courses are offered every other year, not every year. Miss your chance due to a scheduling conflict, you have to wait. So things like a minor or a double major is not the worst thing in the world to have to broaden out the transcript (i.e. the so-called T-shaped profile).

    Remedial courses are an issue, but more students are working and going to class at the same time.

  6. Ror, no one raised that question at the Wednesday forum, but KSFY gave Kaiser free press last week saying that his son is in remission and that Kaiser has time now to campaign.

  7. Coyote, I’m astonished that I have to explain to you that when Kaiser and Dennert went off on their “Fed destroying our money via inflation” tangent, they were not talking about tuition inflation; they were talking about inflation in general, which is what the professors in the room addressed with their statements. Tuition inflation comes from sources other than whatever Kaiser and Dennert were talking about.

    I do agree that we could reduce costs by getting back to finishing college in four years. One or two more years in college permanently reduces graduates’ long-term earning power and savings.

    We can deal with increased remedial courses by pushing kids to take hard classes in high school, as Dr. McTaggart suggests. But the question of more kids working gets us into a more complicated policy discussion. What can the Legislature do to reduce the number of kids working during college? Hmm… increase state support so kids don’t have to pay as much, protect the youth minimum wage so kids can earn more before they go to college—Novstrup and Kaiser didn’t support either of those policies.

  8. Robert McTaggart

    I should add that we recently got approval to move forward with our 3-2 BS/MS program with Idaho State in Physics/Nuclear Science & Engineering. While the regular 4-2 route is still terrific, the dual degree program gets them a graduate degree in one less year (helps with the long-term earning power).

  9. mike from iowa

    Professor-what do students give up going 3-2 instead of 4-2? Must be some trade-off.

  10. Robert McTaggart

    Currently all degrees in the College of Arts and Sciences requires the incorporation of a minor within the 120 credit hour degree (and Physics is in that College). One way of looking at the 3-2 program is that we incorporate a a tad more than a minor’s worth of coursework from Idaho State to fill out the rest of our degree plan.

    So they’re not missing anything that is required, in some sense we are making available additional elective courses without adding FTEs.

    If they want to stay here all four years instead, then they can still include the Minor in Nuclear Engineering within their Physics and/or Engineering degrees.

  11. I’d love to have an extra year of nuclear engineering salary.

  12. Robert McTaggart

    Lots of work to do in computation, materials, shielding, electronics, power systems, human factors, fire protection, workplace and radiation safety, security, environmental monitoring, failure analysis, etc. to support plant operations or the global supply chain.

    None of those things requires a local reactor and could be contracted out regionally, nationally, or globally.

    We’re not really doing anything to build or attract those companies here….besides growing scientists and engineers with that good Midwestern work ethic.

  13. “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.)” RIGHTO

    Self dealing at the BOR and DOE is evident in the MCEC nightmare, and I wonder who owned the land those expensive building on the out skirts of town were, that the Regent’s likely also paid a hefty price to [friends, insiders?].

  14. Dr. McTaggart makes a lot of sense here. It will be, after all, fellow like him who are put in charge of these very projects, if not Dr. McT himself. I am not a pundit, per se, but I have read most of them and they agree with our good friend here.

  15. Dr. McTaggart, what Legislative policies would attract those companies to South Dakota?

  16. Robert McTaggart

    I am guessing you want something above and beyond the typical arguments for quality of life, good schools, lower taxes, good roads, good health care, trained workforce, etc.

    The requirements for manufacturing and quality assurance are much higher in nuclear power than in other industries. If you want to attract a lot of different companies here, having a central location where they can test their materials and devices to meet accreditation standards in a timely fashion would be beneficial.

  17. Robert McTaggart

    There are some things you can do with the universities as well. I like the METLAB over in Mechanical Engineering here at SDSU for example. But to meet accreditation standards they would need more manpower, space, and equipment to do the necessary oversight and process samples in a timely fashion.

  18. Dang it, Robert, can’t we just cut taxes and reduce government? (It’s much easier being a Republican.)

  19. Seriously, the first things you list are givens in my Democratic agenda. Beyond that… could the METLAB at SDSU serve as a nucleus for the industry testing center you envision? Would lots of companies come to Brookings to use such a center? Can we offer advantages over other states in that regard?

  20. Robert McTaggart

    I don’t think it would shock you to learn that I believe that is possible :^). In theory we have the research park and an airport that consultants could fly in and out of, with engineering expertise and a ready supply of interns at SDSU nearby. There may also be existing South Dakota companies that start making parts and components and devices for the global nuclear industry if an accredited laboratory would test their products.

    Ultimately, this would support all of the infrastructure outside of the core that is necessary to deliver electricity to the public, if not for consultants that support construction, computational design, environmental monitoring, safety oversight, etc.

    With regard to Democratic agendas: Believe it or not, the nuclear industry is very interested in enhancing and supporting diversity. Different groups with different backgrounds will look at the same problem differently and provide unique solutions. A diverse workforce is more likely to notice and fix problems before they occur, which reduces shutdowns and improves efficiencies. Plus they want to sell electricity to everybody.