'School choice' provisions, debate jumps into South Dakota Legislature
“I just can't any longer be elected into office and say that the only model, the only way to do education, is the way we've done it since 1889,” one lawmaker backing 'school choice' proposals said.
PIERRE, S.D. — A discussion that has made national headlines in past weeks is on its way to South Dakota — could allowing the state’s per-pupil allocation to follow individual students, rather than tying it to local public schools, improve outcomes for learners in the state?
“Our state constitution talks about establishing public schools, but it also says we can use ‘all suitable means’ to ensure that the benefits of education are had by all people,” said Rep. Scott Odenbach, a former school board member from Spearfish. “And we're not doing that if we don’t try to think outside the box.”
The “school choice” debate, as its proponents refer to it, comes in multiple forms in this legislative session. On the table is an expansion to the South Dakota Virtual School, a proposal to create new curricula in the state and, likely most controversial, a mechanism for state dollars to follow students directly to any school.
Rep. Jon Hansen, along with Odenbach and eight other legislators, is sponsoring House Bill 1234, in a somewhat similar setup to the successful school voucher effort in Iowa.
It would allow the per-student equivalent — a state-defined funding rate sent to public schools for each enrolled pupil — to follow a student to any nonpublic school in the state.
In the 2022-23 school year, per-student expenditure in the state sits at around $6,700. If the price tag for a non-public school is lower than that per-student rate, the bill takes that number instead.
Lastly, the proposal allows for a phase-in period: kindergarten through third grade next year, kindergarten through seventh grade the year after that and, in the 2025-26 school year, a final expansion to all grade levels.
The major opposition to the school voucher system in committee rooms and lawmakers' ears will be the public education system in the state.
“Vouchers are when we take your tax dollars and we give them to private schools or other schools that get to pick and choose where their students are,” said Sandra Waltman, the government relations director with the South Dakota Education Association. “We believe that our tax dollars should stay in the hands of public schools that are accountable to their local publics through their school boards.”
Yet the voucher proposal will also find obstacles in the Republican caucus, too. Concerns of tax dollars flowing out of schools already facing teacher shortages and fighting inflation were part of a fiscally restrained argument advanced by House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, of Pierre.
“In South Dakota, we struggle mightily to fund one form of education,” Mortenson said. “And I think there will be a lot of reluctance to try and to fund two or three different forms of education, lest we put ourselves in a situation where we're getting an income tax or some other kind of revenue source.”
Opponents say South Dakota school system already allows significant choice
In their arguments against the type of voucher program supported by a handful of lawmakers, those involved in public education note that students in South Dakota already have a large amount of choice in comparison to other states.
More populated areas have robust private school choices, parents have the option to homeschool and the state has one of the least restrictive open enrollment programs in the country, meaning parents can send their children to any public school within a reasonable distance.
“In South Dakota, we've got good school choice and we're going to defend it,” Mortenson said.
While open enrollment does offer choice within the public school system, Odenbach says some families looking to exit the public school system entirely are limited by income.
“To the extent we can provide options for those families, of whatever income level, to get their kid into the best situation specific to their unique circumstances, that's what we owe it to the people to try to do,” Odenbach said.
One program in the state toward those ends is the Partners in Education grant program, which plans to give out $3.5 million in tax credit grants to low-income families, at an average of around $1,900 per student. Another, being advanced by Gov. Kristi Noem this session, is a scholarship program for foster children worth $15 million.
Other criticisms of the voucher bill include the high cost even before any movement from public to private schools, as the proposal would move state money for some 15,000 students in South Dakota who currently attend a non-public school, although that cost would be subject to the same ramping up period as the rest of the bill.
Furthermore, until significant portions of students leave, public schools would still be required to provide around the same scale of services, only with fewer resources.
“There aren’t enough teachers or support staff as it is, and so when we talk about diverting even more dollars away from our public school system, I think it's the kids in the public schools who have the most to lose,” Waltman said.
In accompanying legislation, Odenbach builds toward a flexible system of education
Though it will be an uphill battle to put vouchers into the hands of South Dakota parents, Odenbach says other proposals making their way through the legislative process are analogs to creating an education system more narrowly tailored to individual needs.
“I just can't any longer be elected into office and say that the only model, the only way to do education, is the way we've done it since 1889,” Odenbach said.
Odenbach pointed to recent numbers from the Department of Education on statewide proficiency rates — 51% statewide proficiency in English and 43% in math — as evidence that doing the same thing will make similar results an inevitability.
For homeschooling parents who may feel overwhelmed in teaching their children certain subjects, Odenbach is advancing an expansion to the South Dakota Virtual School through House Bill 1233. Students enrolled in the virtual school would still be counted toward their local district’s attendance, meaning no dollars would leave the system under that proposal.
“The vision for the bill is a complete K-12 education that people can take for their full courseload, or that they can take courses a la carte,” Odenbach said, noting that the expansion of rural broadband significantly widens the access to these courses. “Say maybe I'm a homeschooled kid, and I live in a rural area, and my parents say I can't teach you calculus, then there's a class they can take through this.”
Opponents say the bill places additional burdens on school districts and attempts to expand a model of virtual learning that, especially for younger students, did not create good outcomes during the pandemic.
Another idea, which has already made it through committee, is the Center for American Exceptionalism at Black Hills State University, the state’s leading program for educators.
In addition to school choice at the individual level in these other proposals, Odenbach sees the center, which will be tasked with developing civics curriculum and materials, as a sort of curriculum choice for school boards currently faced with the small group of companies currently creating curricula in the country.
“We have to start taking control of things like curriculum and the way we do civics education in order to ramp up our ability to make our young people feel like they are active participants in the civil rights process of this country,” Odenbach said.
As will certainly be the case for the school voucher bill and virtual school bill when they venture into committee, Odenbach’s Center for American Exceptionalism faced criticism from the public education lobby as expensive and wasteful.
— Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.