Senator Jeff Monroe (R-24/Pierre) doesn't care about my economic liberty, but he sure cares about my academic liberty. He's so worried that I won't have the freedom in my classroom to promote critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and respectful discussion of differences of opinion that he's proposed Senate Bill 114, "to encourage and protect the teaching of certain scientific information."

When Republicans like Jeff Monroe presume to tell teachers like me how to conduct respectful and intelligent debate, you know something fishy is going on.

SB 114 is really a sneaky retread of Senator Monroe's attempt last year to write intelligent design and other bushwah (yeah, bushwah, as in, not opinion, not scientific theory, but superstition and falsehood masquerading as real science) into k-12 curriculum across South Dakota.

To make sure there is no misundertanding, let's review the text of Senator Monroe's bill in full. SB 114 creates a completely new section under our education statutes in SDCL Chapter 13-1:

Section 1. That chapter 13-1 be amended by adding thereto a NEW SECTION to read as follows:

The South Dakota Board of Education, local school boards, and all school administrators shall:

  1. Endeavor to create an environment within all elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific subjects taught in curriculum and coursework that is aligned to the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48; and
  2. Assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific subjects such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, human cloning, and other scientific subjects that may cause debate and disputation.

In addition, neither the Board of Education, nor any local school board, or school administrator may prohibit any teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the courses being taught that are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48.

Section 2. The provisions of this Act only protect the teaching of scientific information and may not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, to promote discrimination for or against any particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or to promote discrimination for or against any religion or nonreligion.

Section 3. By no later than the start of the 2015-2016 school year, the secretary of education shall notify all school administrators of the provisions of this Act, and the school administrators within each school district shall notify all teachers within that school district of the provisions of this Act [Senate Bill 114, original text, filed 2015.01.27].

Section 1 is absolutely unnecessary. The Board of Education, local school boards, and school administrators already provide teachers with tools and help to find the resources enumerated. We already have all the tools we need to tell Monroe's little minions why intelligent design is as imaginary as unicorns.

Section 2 is absolutely unnecessary. Scientific information is already made freely available in our K-12 curricula... except when conservatives like Senator Monroe try to block the teaching of honest information about birth control. Plus, we already have the First Amendment to prevent proselytizing in the classroom.

Section 3 is unnecessary grandstanding. Do we not assume that teachers are aware of all relevant statutes to their profession? Why should we read them just Jeff Monroe's pretty statute? Why not set aside a whole day of in-service before school starts to have Senator Monroe and legislators in every district come to their schools to recite chapter and verse the entirety of Title 13?

Senator Monroe proposes a hoghouse vehicle for an unnecessary intelligent design debate. Meanwhile, he ignores the fact that the low teacher pay his legislative negligence facilitates  is leaving us with fewer and fewer teachers who can explain science, fact, and logic to students. Maybe that's been his "intelligent design" all along.

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Patrick Anderson features my moonshot plan to raise teacher pay $10,000, to 34th in the nation, on the education e-pages of that Sioux Falls paper. My plan secures that monumental raise, around $92 million a year spread among about 9,200 K-12 teachers, by lifting 16% of the $582 million in sales tax exemptions the state grants to favored goods and services.

Actually, let's update that: The Governor's proposed budget for FY2016 includes $735 million in sales and use tax exemptions and other tax expenditures. For our moonshot teacher teacher pay raises—which simply make our wages competitive, not over the moon—we need 12.5% of those exemptions, one out of eight dollars.

Anderson notes that a third of the sales tax exemptions are for ag products (e.g., cattle feed and bedding, tractor fuel, swine and bull semen) and asks if nixing those favors would unfairly burden farmers. (Ah, clever, corporate journalists, trying to split the Democrat farm-teacher alliance!) I don't have any particular 12.5% on the chopping block yet. I've certainly never suggested we should take all of the exemptions from the farm sector. To the extent that it is possible to levy a regressive tax fairly, we should spread the exemption cuts around to share the burden among those best able to bear them, to tap wealth where wealth lies. I suggested in our phone interview we might do better to cut the exemption for shoppers' guide ink and advertising... but somehow that suggestion didn't get past the editor's desk at that Sioux Falls paper.

I also told Anderson in our phone conversation that I recognize that ending our our national embarrassment as the state that values teachers least by raising a regressive tax is a suboptimal solution and that many teachers would likely vote against raising their pay by expanding a regressive tax. I'd be open to a wide array of superior funding mechanisms for competitive teacher pay—corporate income tax, re-appropriation of corporate welfare, pot of gold at end of rainbow. I'm just offering a plan within the realm of the politically possible.

It thus seems perfectly possible to sir down with smart people in government and industry and prioritize those exemptions. Which exemptions serve the greatest public purpose? Which cuts will fall on sectors best able to bear them? Make list, cut off the bottom eighth (eighth, I said, eighth!), and we have competitive teacher wages.

And with seven-eighths of the exemptions, $643 million dollars, still on the table, we'd have plenty of room left to consider lifting exemptions to reduce or eliminate the tax on food, the way Minnesota and other civilized states do... because after all, how fair is a tax system that taxes your bologna sandwich but not bull semen?

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Gary Jerke submits to Gordon Howie's blog a vague homily to putting Bibles in public schools. The former Yankton-area legislator opens by saying "Last evening a group from our church appeared before our local school board concerned about their policy toward distribution of Bibles to the children...." Jerke does not directly tell us what the school board's policy is or what his group's concerns are. He also doesn't tell us what school board in South Dakota meets on Saturday night. (The post is dated January 25; "last evening" was January 24.)

But details and explanation be darned, we're off and running into the fundie shower-singing meant to get its practitioners into heaven faster:

Schools are to be a place of preparation and yet the most important aspect of preparation (meaning to make ready) we overlook. That is the preparation of spiritual things which the Bible first addresses in Joshua 22:26 in the building of an alter as a place to show witness to God. For me that underscores a part of my cultural history where in communities churches were built in the heart of our towns and pastors were regarded as the highest authority or often final word on many if not most matters [Gary Jerke, "Be Prepared," The Right Side, 2015.01.25].

Pastors as the highest authority in the community, giving the final word on most matters—translate that as theocracy.

But wait! What's this introduction of spiritual things into the public school curriculum? What does that "preparation" have to do with getting students ready to become welders? "Spiritual things" sounds an awful lot like "philosophy," and we all know philosophy won't help our students get good jobs! How dare Gary Jerke threaten to distract our schools from their primary mission of solving South Dakota's workforce shortage?

I am sure the Governor will join me in standing against this intrusion of impractical theology into our K-12 workforce preparation system.

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The Mitchell school district and the Wagner economic development corporation are heading opposite directions with the workforce development grants they recently won from the state.

The Mitchell school district has gotten a number of area school districts—Ethan, Hanson, Mount Vernon, Parkston, Plankinton, and Tripp—to the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy for vo-tech classes instead of trying to fund their own teachers and programs. Mitchell and its partner schools in this endeavor will use state money to cover the cost of busing high school students to Mitchell for classes. Four routes covering a total of 240 miles each day for 88 school days will run $38,444.

Preferring to bring the mountain to Mohamed, Wagner Area Growth will use $44,478 (costs split between state grant and local effort) to bring two instructors to town from Mitchell Technical Institute to conduct three five-day welding courses and two three-day CDL/truck-driving courses. These courses will target  If these pilot programs work, WAG says it will expand the program to meet other local workforce needs.

Note that in both cases, we could save participants (students headed to Mitchel, instructors headed to Wagner) a lot of time by delivering these courses online. But when we're talking welding and driving, there's only so much a webcam and a chat box can get across.

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I'm scratching my head over a comment reported by Ken Santema from Saturday's crackerbarrel in Aberdeen. Evidently a citizen asked the legislators about a proposal to increase funding for K-12 education through a 1% tourism tax. From Santema's phrasing, it appears the questioner opposed this use of a tourism tax because tourism and education are not connected. Senator Brock Greenfield (R-2/Clark) mentioned his agreement that there is no link between tourism and education in the context of declaring a tourism tax for education a plan unlikely to pass.

Um...

  1. Isn't everything connected to education? Don't visitors benefit from an educated workforce who can count their change, give them directions, and have job opportunities that keep them from burgling RVs?
  2. Imagine you're a tourist enjoying a stay in South Dakota and we give you a choice on how you want your tourism tax dollar spent. Either you can send your dollar to the state to support K-12 education, or you can send your dollar to Pierre to pay for more tourism advertisements. Which would you pick?
  3. Just how "connected" does a thing or activity or industry have to be for us to justify taxing that thing or activity or industry to support some specific public good or service?
  4. If a thing/activity/industry we tax has to be connected in some direct way to the public good/service it pays for, should we end the use of dollars from the sales tax on food for anything other than funding the SDSU College of Agriculture?
  5. Similarly, just what public good or service is property connected to?
  6. Federally, what is income connected to?
  7. What connection does video lottery have to non-playing property owners whose taxes those video gamblers reduce?
  8. Is Senator Greenfield saying he will go to Pierre and demand a budget that funnels every tax dollar from sales, contractors, gambling, etc. into strict budget lines connected exclusively to "connected" public goods and services? Or did he just need an excuse to shoot down a reasonable plan that would raise revenue for K-12 education and give us a chance to prove his dear old mom wrong?
  9. Does this thinking turn every government function to a fee-for-service model?

Crackerbarrels do raise some good questions. They also provoke Republicans to raise some odd objections to raising revenues to help our schools.

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The fourteen community workforce development grants recently approved by the states are heavy on local training. Consider the grant the City of Pierre won. Pierre proposed a $100,000+ two-pronged program.

First, Pierre says it needs more truck drivers for construction (how's that for specific workforce needs?). They want to create a branch of Mitchell Technical Institute's commercial driver's license (CDL) training program in Pierre. They also want to cover the cost of that training and licensing (about $2,500) for each of those potential drivers. In return, the new CDL holders would promise to work for their sponsoring company for a period to be determined or pay the money back of they leave early.

Second, Pierre wants to target the 10% of local high school students in the area who apparently don't have solid post-secondary education or career plans with a job-shadowing program. The city would line sixteen kids up with employers who need more potential workers in their hiring pipeline. The shadowers would do real work eight hours a week for sixteen weeks. They'd get paid real money, $10 an hour—a quarter from the business, a quarter from the city, and half from the state grant.

Pierre asked for $50,240 from the state; they got $20,480, which equals the total cost of the job-shadow program.

Why would Pierre focus on training local young people and current residents who can't afford CDL training? Let me highlight one passage from Pierre's application:

...[W]e looked at strategies for building that pipeline and identified two primary options.

  • recruiting people from outside of South Dakota
  • engaging people who are already near, but not currently engaged in the workforce

Our employers tell us, historically those who come from outside the area don’t stick around. To retain employees, they need a local connection. So, we chose the engagement route and explored a number of disengaged workforce sources... [City of Pierre, Community Incentives Matching Program grant application, November 2014].

Trying to recruit out-state workers apparently doesn't work, at least not in Pierre. Our capital city thus chooses to grow its own workforce.

Update 11:01 CST: Hmmm... the Gregory Business and Industrial Development Corporation is getting $7,000 from the state as part of its $14,000 program to help local folks get their CDL. Gregory's application says the cost of CDL training and testing through MTI is $1,600 per student, not $2,500. Gregory will support ten students in their CDL class. The state will pick up $700 for each student, local GBIDC donations another $700, and each student the remaining $200.

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Did you know Governor Dennis Daugaard and billionaire Denny Sanford aren't the only guys proposing a vo-tech scholarship? A month prior to the big announcement of the Build Dakota Scholarship, the Rapid City Economic Development Partnership and other interested Black Hills parties applied for one of those workforce development grants from the state. They asked for $220,000 from the state to support their $440,000 three-year plan; they got $70,000.

The Black Hills plan included all sorts of leveraging and marketing (after two years of top-secret prep, the Black Hills economic developers last year launched "a new economic development branding and marketing effort, unified as Rushmore Region"), career coaching at the K-12 level, metalwork training and certification, and more.

The Black Hills plan also included a scholarship proposal:

We are proposing to create a regional skills-based training scholarship fund, that when matched by the employers seeking the trained employees, would make possible the opportunity for many of these unemployed and often underemployed job candidates to round out their skills/certifications and thus qualify for these attractive job opportunities. This would supplement our recruitment strategy by helping our employers locate employees who are almost ready, but who lack one or two critical skills prerequisite to being hired [Rapid City Economic Development Partnership, Community Incentives Matching Program grant application, November 2014].

Great minds think alike, I guess.

Ben Snow, president of the RCEDP, tells me he and Blaise Emerson of the Black Hills Council of Local Governments are still working on details of the scholarship component of their plan:

We are... encouraged that coincidental to the day we were delivering our presentation to the workforce board, the announcement of the Sanford gift for skilled-trades scholarships was taking place in Sioux Falls and that it is very close in concept to what our proposal included, except on a statewide basis and at a much higher funding level [Ben Snow, e-mail to Madville Times, 2015.01.20].

The Build Dakota Scholarship workforce fields are to be determined within the next couple weeks. If they align with the needs our Black Hills boosters see in their workforce, the state and RCEDP should be able to pool resources and train even more workers for the Black Hills labor pool.

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Rebuttal of the week to gubernatorial malarkey on K-12 education funding comes from Leola superintendent Brian Heupel, who offers this observation on Governor Dennis Daugaard's persistent shirking of responsibility for South Dakota's perennial barrel-bottom teacher pay:

"The governor always says that the local school boards determine teacher pay," Heupel said. "Well, I look at it, when I was growing up, if my dad gave me 50 cents, I couldn't go to the store and buy something for a dollar" [Patrick Anderson, "Teacher Shortage Stories," that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.01.22].

The teacher shortage is real. Heupel and his colleagues in Flandreau, Alcester-Hudson, Chamberlain, and Estelline aren't making it up. And the amount the Governor is willing to spend on education is directly responsible for our continued sorry state.

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