Gov. Kristi Noem's foster care scholarship meets dead-end courtesy of public education lobby
“Why would we create new major programs, when we can’t even fund the programs that we have?” a public education lobbyist said in opposition to Noem's three-year, $15 million proposal.
PIERRE, S.D. — The Stronger Families Scholarship, a major policy initiative proposed by Gov. Kristi Noem as part of a litany of family related bills this session, is dead on arrival, with the legislation failing at its first stop by a 4-2 vote in the Senate Education committee on Feb. 7.
Noem first announced the scholarship program during her State of the State address on Jan. 10, appealing to the joint legislative chamber with the concern that “our foster children face educational challenges as a result of their circumstances.”
The proposal was heavily criticized by lobbyists representing the state's public education system.
"That seems to be a common theme," said Sen. Jessica Castleberry, a Republican from Rapid City and one of two favorable votes on the bill. "The state departments are looking for solutions, and the public education lobbyists are unwilling to look."
As of press time, a spokesperson for Noem did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation’s failure to get through the education committee and on to the Joint Appropriations Committee.
The legislation itself, Senate Bill 100, is a three-year proposal totaling $15 million. It would offer grants of up to $4,000 for any student in foster care up until high school graduation, which can be used on nonpublic school tuition, private tutoring, online education, standardized testing fees and some other education-related costs. The funding would apply to students in public or accredited private schools in the state.
Laura Ringling, a senior policy adviser with the administration, told the Senate Education Committee that approximately 1,000 foster children in the state would qualify for the scholarship in the first year. That number might gradually increase each year as the bill requires that an “eligible student retains program eligibility regardless of subsequent placement out of the foster care system.”
Though proponents of the bill echoed Noem’s sentiments that investing in foster education was key to helping these students — who are often behind their classmates and may have learning or mental health issues — catch up to their peers. However, a half-dozen public education lobbyists representing school districts, administrators and teachers, lambasted the proposal as a giveaway to private schools in the state.
“Why would we create new major programs, when we can’t even fund the programs that we have?” said Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “We have challenges in public schools, we are financially behind in average teacher salaries and we have teacher shortages. And the assertion was made that this does not compete with public funds. It certainly does.”
In her rebuttal to these arguments, Ringling took issue with the characterization of the bill from the opponents, noting that many noting that many foster children attend public school, meaning the dollars would go to enhancing that education rather than funding private schools.
“This is a program to provide our South Dakota kids who are at the greatest risk of falling behind with a variety of resources to help them reach their greatest potential,” she said. “This isn’t a runaway train to fund our private schools or to take kids out of public schools.”
Dianna Miller, a lobbyist with large school districts in the state, noted that a similar program already exists, a $3.5 million annual pool of money called Partners in Education. Last year, of the 1,500 scholarships given out, nine scholarships went to foster children, with zero foster applicants denied.
Ringling noted that the average scholarship of $1,970 from this fund is lower than the one being offered in the Stronger Families Scholarship program.
An additional criticism of the legislation was the temporary funding window.
Mitch Richter, a lobbyist with the South Dakota United School Association, made the point that foster children able to attend an otherwise-unaffordable educational opportunity during these three years would potentially have that taken away when the funding ends.
He argued this would cause the very lack of consistency that proponents of the bill said harms educational outcomes for foster children in the first place.
“The three-year funding is a real problem,” Richter said. “It’s bad policy to start a program and not fund it for any more than three years in this particular case.”
Proponents of the program framed this temporary funding as a sort of trial window and noted that appropriators would be free to extend the program if it was successful.
“As the opponents said, this bill doesn’t exist in three years without additional action from the legislature,” Ringling said. “But we do want to start somewhere.”
Sen. Sydney Davis, a Republican from Burbank and one of the four votes against moving the legislation forward, said she felt the funding would be better served if invested in the state’s foster care system more directly.
“I’m very appreciative of the families that take in foster care children, and I would love to see these funds go directly to the Department of Social Services to be better allocated to serve them well,” Davis said.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.