Hunhoff: Amend education plan or reject it“It’s a total takeover of the schools,” the Democratic leader said of Gov. Dennis Daugaard's teacher pay proposal.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Bernie Hunhoff has a simple question that he said no one wants to answer: “Why can’t we have the best schools in America?”
Hunhoff, a veteran Democratic legislator from Yankton who is now the House minority leader, is a sharp critic of the education plan proposed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard and supported by most Republicans in the Legislature.
HB 1234 passed the House on Monday and is now before the Senate. Daugaard refers to it as a merit-pay plan that would offer bonuses to top teachers and salary incentives to attract more science and math teachers. The governor unveiled it during his State of the State address last month.
Hunhoff said the plan is an attack on education. He said it would reduce local control.
“It’s a total takeover of the schools,” Hunhoff said. “We could just as soon call it the ‘one school district’ bill.”
He favors killing the bill by sending it to the non-existent 41st day of the session. Then he would form a “blue-ribbon panel” to include teachers, school administrators, school board members, the Department of Education, business community members and other stakeholders. He introduced a bill to do just that on Monday, but it was shot down in the House.
The panel could create a plan to make South Dakota’s schools the best in the country and start the entire state working to achieve that, he said.
Hunhoff said the goals should be to:
n Maintain local control.
n Establish standards and testing and do it in a way that inspires collaboration and teamwork.
n Provide adequate base funding.
“The first step is to bring everyone to the table to discuss the state and future of education in South Dakota and do it openly, with the public invited,” he said.
It worked in tourism, Hunhoff said, as the state’s industry has grown and thrived in the last three decades since a similar plan was adopted.
“We did it in tourism,” he said. “We did it in rural water. We set a goal, and by golly we’re making it happen. South Dakota is a state where you can set big goals and achieve them. We can come together like one big family. If you can keep the politics out of it and make people believe in it, we can make it happen.”
Hunhoff said he feels some people in the business community aren’t in favor of more education for everyone. He said he’s been told there’s a need for people with less education to work low-paying and minimum-wage jobs.
“There’s absolutely that feeling,” Hunhoff said.
But he feels with the proper discussion, business owners can be made to see the value of an educated workforce.
“Education is the best economic development,” Hunhoff said.
But Hunhoff said he realizes the Republican-backed bill has cleared the first hurdle and may well pass in the Senate. But he said the Senate will likely approve a different bill than the House did, so it will eventually be decided in a conference committee.
“This thing will drag out all session,” he said. “It’s going to lay around here like a sick dog.”
Hunhoff said if the bill does pass, he wants it to be the best possible one.
“Let’s make lemonade out of this lemon of a bill,” he said. “If we could fix this bill, that would be fine with me. There are a few things in this bill worth salvaging.”
Finding a way to hire more math and science teachers has “broad support,” Hunhoff said. And bonus programs are a good idea, if handled correctly by local districts.
“I don’t think one-size-fits-all makes any sense of a state the size of South Dakota,” he said. “It also makes no sense to pay the kid $8,000 more right out of college when the teacher right across the hall has been doing a great job for years.”
Hunhoff said he believes most educators in the state are opposed to the plan.
“The proponents are all bureaucrats, politicians and lobbyists who are desperate to, quote, have their feet at the table,” he said. “I’ve not heard a single superintendent or teacher or parent who thinks this is a good idea, who thinks the state should take over education in South Dakota, except for your guy in Mitchell.”
Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves said Hunhoff is half right.
“I definitely support it,” he said. “I think there are other educators in the state who support it. People aren’t real interested in going out in public and talking about it. Lots of people are keeping their heads down.”
Graves wrote a column in The Daily Republic last month endorsing Daugaard’s plan and testified in favor of it before the House Education Committee on Feb. 8. He said he is fully in support of the plan and doesn’t mind making that known.
Hunhoff said he has no intention of supporting the bill and said all Democrats in the House and Senate, and some Republicans, agree with him.
“We already have some of the best schools. Our students consistently score above average. And we get all that for the least money,” he said. “We spend far less per pupil than any state in our region. In fact, to reach the average spending of the seven-state region, we would need to invest an additional $215 million in our schools.
Hunhoff said the state aid formula is worth supporting.
“The problem is it hasn’t been followed,” he said. “Overall, the formula has served us pretty well for the last 15 years.”
He said the average annual increase since it was formed in 1996 is 1.5 percent.
The total share of the general fund dedicated to K-12 education has dropped from 39 percent to 30 percent in the past few years, he said. The Legislature had frozen education funding for a year and then cut the state funding formula last year, he noted.
Last year’s school cuts followed years of underfunding schools, causing property taxes to rise across the state in districts that opted out of the state funding formula, Hunhoff said.
When the federal government sent $26 million to bolster education, state officials kept the money in the bureaucracy instead of sending it to schools as other states did, he said.
This session, Daugaard has proposed giving annual $5,000 bonuses to the top 20 percent of each school district’s teachers, based on a new evaluation system and student performance. Lawmakers have revised it to give school districts the option to follow the governor’s plan, create their own teacher reward plans or not take part at all.
The governor also originally proposed giving annual bonuses of $3,500 for math and science teachers in middle schools and high schools. The House this week changed that to give new math and science teachers $8,000 annual bonuses for their first five years of teaching. Supporters said that will help ease a shortage of math and science teachers by giving new teachers $40,000 to help pay off their student loans.
Republican lawmakers said the Senate is likely to make additional changes to the bill, mostly to the incentives for math and science teachers. The bill could be changed to give some bonuses to existing math and science teachers, and districts might be allowed to give bonuses to scarce teachers in other fields.
The governor’s proposal also would eliminate tenure protections in July for new teachers who do not have tenure. Those who already have it would keep that protection, which specifies they can be fired only for poor performance or other specific reasons.
Daugaard and the Legislature cut state aid to school districts by 6.6 percent a year ago to help balance the budget. Daugaard this year has proposed to give schools a 2.3 percent inflationary increase in ongoing aid to cover operating expenses. He also is proposing to boost state aid another 0.7 percent on a one-time basis, an increase that would not carry over into future years.
Hunhoff favors a plan to index the state funding formula to rise and fall with the rise and fall of state revenue. In recent years, education has received a 3 percent hike or less while state government revenues grew at twice that rate, he said.
“It seemed like a very modest and common-sense way for education to catch up after the huge hole we dug for it in the past two years,” Hunhoff said.
The long-term goal would be to make South Dakota’s schools the best in the nation, he said.
“That motto should be on bumper stickers and classroom doors,” he said.
Instead, he said the current climate has educators uneasy and some looking to leave the state.
“We’re already losing. First of all, we’re losing people to the profession,” Hunhoff said. “Young people are choosing not to go into education. That’s unfortunate.”
School districts on the edges of the state, which are among the largest and most progressive, are losing teachers to border states, he said. Superintendents are telling him they are having a “very hard time” attracting qualified candidates, Hunhoff said.
But he said right now, teachers and other educators feel they are under fire and they’re not sure why.
“I hope it’s not the signal but it is the impression teachers are getting. I know people in the schools feel that is the message they are getting,” Hunhoff said. “This has been very damaging to the education community and for what reason, I do not know why.”
Hunhoff joined other Democratic legislative leaders in criticizing Daugaard’s plan during a press conference Thursday.
Legislative Republicans fired back during a press conference of their own.
“Our ultimate goal is to take care of the students,” said Assistant House Republican Leader Justin Cronin, of Gettysburg.
Sen. Tim Rave, R-Baltic, said the Legislature will decide over the next two weeks how much state aid to give school districts as the next state budget is put together. Lawmakers will be cautious because an uncertain economy means no one is sure how much tax collections will increase in the next year, he said.
“I think the theme is we’ll put as much into education as we can,” Rave said.
Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, who replaced Daugaard at the governor’s scheduled press conference, said state aid to schools has risen substantially over the decades.
He said the governor and the Legislature are being cautious about committing money on an ongoing basis for education and other programs this year, because voters in November will decide the fate of a ballot measure that would increase the 4 percent state sales tax to 5 percent, with the extra money going to education and medical programs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.