Worries over public school impact tank 'school choice' proposals in South Dakota

"We're told time after time not to consider any alternatives [to public school] other than more funding, and you wonder why parents are crying out for choice," one proponent said.

Dianna Miller, a lobbyist with large public schools in the state, said House Bill 1234 was "designed to erode public education" during a committee hearing on Feb. 15, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — Two proposals looking to make South Dakota’s education system more flexible for families had their wings clipped before they could take off. They were rejected in the House Education committee in back-to-back, lopsided votes that showed lawmakers taking seriously the inherent tradeoffs between "school choice" and an adequately funded public school system.

In the case of House Bill 1234, a voucher system that would allow the state’s per-student spending to follow any child to an accredited nonpublic school in the state, lawmakers on the education committee voted 11-4 against moving the bill forward.

According to the Legislative Research Council, the per-student cost in the coming school year will sit just under $7,000. Due to the ramping-up of included grades over the first three years of implementation, the loss of public school dollars is estimated at just under $13 million in the first year, up to around $45 million in year three.

The conversation of “increasing competition” to improve student outcomes and provide a path to private education for lower-income students has gained momentum nationwide during the outset of this year’s legislative sessions, with the passage of a voucher law in Iowa and discussions in a handful of other states over proposals in a similar vein.

Rep. Jon Hansen, of Dell Rapids, the bill’s prime sponsor, took issue with the claim by Dianna Miller, a lobbyist with the Large School Group, that the practical effect of the bill would be to “erode public education” in the state.


Hansen pointed out that public schools in the state are already near the front of the budget line for an inflation adjustment.

All Hansen was looking for, he said, was part of the $90 million or so in ongoing funds left over after planned increases to major state programs.

“Fifty-one percent [English] proficiency means the other half are not proficient,” said Rep. Scott Odenbach, of Spearfish, in making an argument shared by several lawmakers that alternatives might be needed for improved educational outcomes. “We're getting to that point by spending a billion dollars per year. And yet we're told time after time not to consider any alternatives other than more funding, and you wonder why parents are crying out for choice.”

But opponents of the bill said the proposal is an inherent competitor to public schools, which are looking for an inflation cost adjustment closer to 8% than the 5% anchor proposed by Gov. Kristi Noem, an increase that would go to covering higher costs and raising lagging teacher salaries.

Even if public schools were made whole by replacing the voucher dollars going out the door, public education lobbyists argued those funds going out could instead be going to further increase funding and match inflation.

“When we talk about being 50th in the nation [in salaries] and not having money for teacher salaries and those things, to compete with these other dollars means that we're not even keeping up,” said Wade Pogany, a lobbyist with the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “Where we stand today with this financial decision, it's not a revenue neutral issue.”

Another perspective on the potential damage that a voucher-led flight to private schools in the state would do to public schools came from Rep. Tim Reisch. He compared the issue to his experience in the prison system, which shares similar economies of scale to public schools in that fixed costs are spread out evenly over every person in the system.

When the prison population falls by one inmate, he explained, it does not make costs go down by a rate equal to per-inmate spending, as many costs for both prisons and schools are fixed.


“You don't save any heating costs,” Reisch explained, using the hypothetical case of losing an inmate to a private prison. “You won't save on lights, you can't lay off any staff, all of those costs are still there.”

A separate yet related proposal came just before the school voucher bill. A former school board member, Odenbach brought a bill intended to expand the current “patchwork” of virtual options in the state into a South Dakota Virtual School, a flexible curriculum to meet the needs of homeschooled students, children with unique behavioral health needs or even learners looking for a la carte options to supplement their education.

The committee shot down that proposal 12-3 due to the opposition of the Department of Education and public education lobbyists, who noted the proposal in its current form placed a burden on public schools through its attempt to foster parent-educator discussion and a sound curriculum.

However, several lawmakers on the committee indicated a desire to see Odenbach work with the department over the next year in order to better flesh out the proposal’s goal and serve students who don’t quite fit into the current system.

“I think it’s a lot further along now than it would have been if I hadn’t brought this,” Odenbach told Forum News Service after the vote.

“The Biden administration hasn't done enough to keep Americans safe," the governor said during her remarks, positioning South Dakota as an example of how states can protect American interests.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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