GRAVES: Election results bad for educationThose who opposed 1234 spent an enormous amount of money to block $15 million in annual spending, all of which would have gone into the pockets of South Dakota teachers.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
As the president and leadership of Congress attempt to negotiate a way of avoiding plunging over the approaching fiscal cliff, it becomes increasingly apparent just how important the recent national election was to that process. Elections have consequences, as they say, (and a bit of a rarely admitted paraphrase of Richard Weaver’s classic work, “Ideas Have Consequences”) but, as is typical from Washington, it is often more important to capture the perception of something than it is to own its actual meaning. Thus, both sides can claim victory in the national elections — the president for securing a second term and the Republican House for maintaining its majority — but claims by both sides of the meaning of those victories for their stance on dealing with the ubiquitous, seemingly eternal, budget crisis are more difficult to fully substantiate. Who does have the mandate?
Though the situation is not identical in South Dakota — there is no “divided” government among the state Legislature and executive branches as both are held, and held decisively, by Republicans — issues nevertheless remain about just who holds a mandate on certain issues, among them education policies.
In South Dakota’s recent election, the South Dakota Education Association referred House Bill 1234, which would have injected a number of reforms in our state’s education program, to a vote of the people and also sponsored an initiative which would have increased our state’s sales tax to the enormous financial benefit of both medical services and the state’s K-12 schools. The governor took a public stance in favor of 1234 and against the sales tax increase. And he and SDEA (as well as a number of other education groups who took a public or less-than-public stance) essentially received a split decision, with 1234 being overwhelmingly repealed and the sales tax increase going down in flames as well.
But what does either side — and what do the rest of us — take from these apparently conflicting mandates? The answer to that is becoming increasingly clear from the governor’s budget address in which he gave K-12 schools the 3 percent increase called for in the state finance formula but little else. This seems like a reasonable interpretation of the message of the recent election. After all, those who opposed 1234 spent an enormous amount of money to block $15 million in annual spending, all of which would have gone into the pockets of South Dakota teachers. If educators themselves felt it was more important how such dollars would be divvyed up among teachers than that they would be provided to teachers, it can be argued that teacher pay is not as pathetic as is often argued. (This is not to say that South Dakota teachers are not behind the rest of the country or that we do not need to enhance that pay. We do. It is simply a recognition that even among education groups, apparently, other considerations are more important than the goal of increased teacher compensation.) Additionally, the failure of the initiated measure to provide a large, committed revenue stream to schools through the sales tax increase has to reflect a certain view among voters that it is at least less important to them to provide new funding to schools than it is avoid that tax increase.
For educational advocates — though I certainly admit I am in the minority on this view — the results of the election were an unmitigated disaster. To summarize, education groups spent, by some accounts, over a million dollars to block giving teachers $15 million a year and spent so much time and energy on 1234 that it left the much more important issue of the sales tax initiative neglected both in terms of campaign funds and attention, spelling its demise. Put another way, education groups spent over a million to block $15 million in funding for teachers and effectively ignored the opportunity to secure $180 million for schools annually. Additionally, given what I at least perceived as the nastiness of the campaign against 1234 and the Governor’s Office, I can’t imagine what incentive he or his people now have for working on reform initiatives for education, especially given the fact that most education groups provided input on 1234, received the changes they asked for in that legislation, and then turned around and opposed the law both during the last legislative session and in the election. Even a chief executive with a deep commitment to improving education, as I know Gov. Daugaard to be, would have difficulty committing the resources, time and energy to future educational reforms when past experience with such is a combination of ingratitude, double-dealing and lack of results.
In some sense, the educational community should be pleasantly surprised to receive the benignity expressed in the recent budget address. Hopefully, we can follow that up with some small, positive changes to education and its funding in South Dakota (one-time monies, categorical programming to assist students such as a funding factor for ESL students, etc.) during the coming legislative session. If we can, though, it will be in large part because this governor is continuing in his willingness to not allow the poor behavior of others to interfere with serving the best interests of students and, ultimately, to put solving the problems of the state of South Dakota over more political interests.
Now if we could only transfuse some of that same elixir from Pierre to Washington, D.C.