One person on the way into the final listening session of the Blue Ribbon K-12 funding task force asked me, “Is this going to be a dog-and-pony show?”
None of the three sessions I attended Tuesday here in Aberdeen fit that description. The meetings played out like an honest attempt to solicit input from the citizens in attendance on three questions, the same questions posed at all eighteen sessions around the state:
- When you think about funding in your local community, what is important to you?
- What ideas or new approaches might make those priorities more possible for schools in your community?
- What advice do you offer to the Task Force as the work moves forward?
I didn’t see dogs or ponies, just sticky notes. Participants sat in different small groups for each question. They wrote down each noteworthy point of their discussions on sticky notes. They then starred the three most important responses their table produced for display on the wall. (I have altered some of the photos to reduce size; I have not altered the text appearing on the notes; click each to embiggen!)
Two TIE staff—current director Julie Mathiesen and former director turned senior consultant Jim Parry—will transcribe and analyze every sticky note, starred or not, from all sessions to identify major themes. They’ll come up with themes as obvious in the Aberdeen session as in the Watertown sessions the day before. Paraphrasing from a summary provided by a correspondent who attended one of the Watertown sessions, I predict the six big idea walls will boil down to this sentence:
The task force needs to identify new revenue streams to provide stable, consistent K-12 funding sufficient to recruit and retain qualified teachers.
That’s a very small verbal precipitate from a big swirling solution of conversation and sticky notes. It does not capture the most vivid anecdote I heard all day in Aberdeen, a story that won’t fit on a sticky note but captures South Dakota’s K-12 funding problem in toto:
A superintendent was driving down the highway and had to stop for road construction. The flagger noticed the superintendent’s school plates and asked where he worked. They got to talking, and the superintendent learned the flagger was a South Dakota native who moved back here with his wife after teaching special ed in Alaska for a few years. The superintendent said he knew of 29 special education openings around South Dakota and asked the flagger if he’d applied. The flagger said no way—why would he, when he can make more flagging cars all construction season?
The TIE folks will honestly analyze the qualitative data produced by the World Café conversations the Blue Ribboneers hosted for us this month. But their data will not tell us anything the flagger’s story does not. We aren’t paying teachers enough to compete with other jobs in state, let alone teaching jobs out of state. Every teacher knows this. Every administrator knows this. Even every legislator who doesn’t want to do anything about the problem knows this.
The problem is as obvious as the solution: put more money toward schools. The specific legislation that would enact that solution won’t come from one-off public brainstorming sessions. Good public policy comes from ongoing conversations among colleagues who meet regularly, step back to study and think, then get together again and again until they can draft a specific proposal that experts and the general public can digest and debate.
The Blue Ribbon listening sessions weren’t a dog-and-pony show… unless we were the dogs and ponies, meant to enjoy the public display of our voices before the task force gets to its real work. But if only one story, like the flagger story, comes out of these sessions and sticks in the handpicked task force members’ minds, they’ll be able to end our Legislature’s and Governor’s complacency and propose a real solution to South Dakota’s teacher shortage.
We’ll know the true value of this exercise nine months from now, when the 2016 Legislature gavels out.