The reality is that the task force appointed by the governor to study teachers and students in South Dakota’s K-12 public schools won’t be able to propose a final solution on teacher pay when the panel meets for the final time Oct. 29 at View 34 on Pierre’s east side. That decision will be reached behind closed doors, in private meetings of the Legislature’s Republicans, who have enough votes in each of the Senate and the House of Representatives to approve tax increases — or block tax increases. There are approximately 75 days from the final meeting of the task force until the opening gavels of the 2016 legislative session. Then there are 38 working days in the session, which starts Jan. 12 and ends March 29.
What the task force hasn’t shown yet is that salaries — last in the nation on average — are a problem for teachers and students. We haven’t seen yet the link between teacher pay and student performance by school district. That answer might cut to the bone — or it might not. Addressing that question with state laws to penalize low-paying, low-performing school districts also would challenge the dearly-held concept of local control of schools by local school boards.
To this point, the task force with its 26 members — so many individuals that the task force breaks into three groups for discussions of conceptual ideas — hasn’t show the ability to reach a point by point set of recommendations. Perhaps someone is working on that document in advance of the Oct. 29 meeting. But based on what was and wasn’t produced at the Oct. 1 meeting, there is no evidence so far the task force will be able to generate recommendations that the Legislature and Gov. Dennis Daugaard could use as a map for the 2016 session.
The business community hasn’t come forward. The private universities, colleges and public and private technical institutes don’t even have a seat at the table. (The state universities have one.) The real crush in South Dakota is employable people and living-wage jobs for those people. That is the disconnect in South Dakota’s economy right now. There are indeed thousands of jobs available, but how many allow people to make a reasonable living and protect themselves and their families with insurance and retirement savings? Working multiple part-time jobs isn’t the answer to that challenge.
Teaching school offers those very things across nearly all of South Dakota, regardless whether salaries on average are lowest in the nation. But so do most of the jobs waiting for tech-school graduates, who typically are in the work force in two years, and frequently at an equal or higher level of initial pay, rather than four or five years that are required for a teaching degree.
Unless the governor and the Republican majorities are willing to approve higher taxes, teacher pay can’t be improved on a consistent, statewide basis. And unless there is some sort of tuition-forgiveness program developed immediately for teachers to work in higher-need subjects and higher-need areas, such as one year of forgiveness on tuition and fees in exchange for one year of teaching, we won’t see much if any change. Such a forgiveness program requires additional funding as well.
This comes down to money and whether elected leaders are willing to take more money from citizens. I don’t know many current legislators who won election promising to raise taxes.