Kudos to Ken Santema for making the drive out to Ipswich for Monday's District 23 GOP House candidates forum. His summary of the candidates' responses to audience questions is a useful guide for voters in the sparse but sprawling north central district.

Of all the instructive policy statements staked out by the candidates, Mr. Powers chooses to focus on the vague partisan snark issued by Democratic Party apostate Dale Hargens. District 23 voters frankly don't care about that. They want to know which of the five candidates can best represent their views on property taxes, education, and social issues.

Santema notes that all five candidates—Hargens of Miller, Michelle Harrison of Mobridge, Gene Toennies of Cresbard, Larry Nielson of Tulare, and incumbent Rep. Justin Cronin of Gettysburg—appear to view economic development as a priority for government. Hargens said his departure from the Democratic Party came because of a "surge to the left" by our party, but I remain fascinated at supposedly free-market Republicans' ongoing surge toward leftist government intervention in the economy.

On education, all five candidates appear to defer the question of education funding to local control... because legislators would hate to be responsible for advocating the tax increases necessary for schools to end South Dakota's humiliation of teachers with the lowest salaries in the nation.

Santema reports some predictable fuss and feathers about Common Core. But someone phrased the Common Core question perfectly, asking the candidates what they thought would happen if there suddenly were no standards in public education. Harrison, Toennies, and Hargens gave the right answer: teachers would go right on teaching, proving there is no need for top-down standards and political reform movements like Common Core and No Child Left Behind.

On gay marriage, Nielson appears to have offered the greatest offense, saying (in Santema's paraphrase) that gay marriage is "nothing but a topic brought forth to expand benefits...." Yeah, because all you non-heterosexuals aren't looking for equality or justice or respect; you just want your partner's pension, and that's just evil. We should get rid of all those greedy spousal benefits for everybody!

On the hopeful side, Harrison said gay marriage and abortion are morality issues and that (reports Santema) "she doesn’t believe the government has the right to choose these issues for people." Hey, Charlie Hoffman! Can you get your neighbors to recognize the true conservatism in that statement?

Alas, Santema notes that all five candidates said they support the Keystone XL pipeline (Hargens on the false assertion that TransCanada's export of tar sands oil to China will promote our energy independence) and that not one addressed the issue of property rights and eminent domain that ought to raise Republican ire over Keystone XL.

Thank you for that report, Ken!


The Pierre Capital Journal makes available this fun map of South Dakota school districts and their average teacher pay and ACT scores:

Naturally, that map got me wondering: do we find any correlation between the two figures featured here, teacher pay and ACT scores?

I rush to the state Department of Education's Statistical Digest, spreadsheetify the 2013 data, and uncover the following correlations for schools with ten or more kids taking the ACT in 2013:

  • Average Teacher Salary to ACT Composite Score: 0.1037
  • ATS–ACT English: 0.1839
  • ATS–ACT Reading: 0.1151
  • ATS–ACT Science: 0.0431
  • ATS–ACT Math: 0.0268
  • ATS–# students taking ACT: 0.3713
  • ATS–high school graduation rate: –0.2526

The ACT numbers suggest a faint association between higher teacher pay and student scores. But the only correlation with statistical significance I feel comfortable citing is the correlations to ACT reading scores, and even that number, 0.18, is so practically small that, even if it hints at some boost kids get in class from our paying their teachers more, that boost could easily be overwhelmed by a grouchy principal or one mild flu outbreak.

The last two correlations are somewhat more significant, suggesting that higher teacher pay aligns with more students taking the ACT but more students struggling to graduate. Those two correlations are still smaller than my "Holy cow!" threshold. But even if you see something worth reading into a –0.25 or +0.37 correlation, note that those two numbers on teacher pay may really just be a back-door way of reminding us that bigger school districts have slightly lower graduation rates (correlation of K-12 enrollment to HS grad rate: –0.1734).

The most confident statement one can make from these data is that within South Dakota, relatively higher teacher salaries are a very weak predictor of student performance on the ACT.

Tangentially related: The Department of Education lists 66 out of 151 districts as having opted out of the general fund levy. Interestingly, opt-outs don't mean higher teacher salaries: the correlation on those two columns is actually negative, –0.1975.


We're rich! So says Rep. Bernie Hunhoff as he gazes upward at the towering pile of money in South Dakota's state budget reserves:

South Dakotans, your state trust & reserve funds grew $21 million in the last month to a total of $1.065 billion. Reserves and trust funds have grown $98.9 million since last June 30. Some of my friends on the right side of the aisle don't like it when I suggest that we are "flush with cash" -- but these are the latest actual numbers and I just don't know how else to explain it? [Bernie Hunhoff, Facebook post, 2014.04.02]

Folks have asked me where South Dakota would ever get the money to meet my moonshot goal of raising teacher pay by $10,000 to raise us from 51st to 34th in the nation in compensating teachers. With 9,200 teachers in South Dakota, my proposal would cost $92,000,000. At the rate Rep. Hunhoff says we filled our reserve in March, we could fill the "End the Embarrassment!" teacher compensation fund in four and a half months without raising any taxes or cutting any programs.

Or let's be even less ambitious: suppose we just wanted to raise teacher pay to the average per capita personal income. In its April 3 update on the South Dakota economy, the Bureau of Finance and Management reports that per capita income in South Dakota in 2013 was $45,558, 21st in the nation and 2.3% higher than the national per capita income of $44,543.

South Dakota per capita income: 21st in the nation, 2.3% higher than the national average.

South Dakota teacher pay: 51st in the nation, 29.8% lower than the national average.

Ending that embarrassing fiscal disconnect would require only two and a half Marches of reserve fund diversion. State reserves would still grow by tens of millions of dollars. The only people who would pay more taxes would be those 9,200 teachers, who would buy more stuff (sales tax), hire contractors (excise tax) to improve their homes (property tax), and convert that money gathering dust in Pierre into real economic stimulus in every school community in the state.

Joe Lowe, Sue Wismer, Lora Hubbel, you're listening, right?


The Board of Regents approved Dakota State University's request to offer to new graduate degrees: a Doctor of Science in Cyber Security and a Master of Science in Analytics. The latter is paired with a new M.S. in Data Science at SDSU.

The positive read of these degrees is that the Regents are responding widely to market demand and offering students skills to make beaucoup bucks. The negative read is that the Regents are aligning our university system more closely with the police-corporate surveillance state, promoting the use of Big Data to expand the knowledge and control businesses and government can gain over citizens.

While the new degrees will open some doors for students, the master's in analytics will close some other doors. UNL Department of Management Chair David L. Olson, acting as an external consultant for the Regents on this degree proposal, says DSU's faculty are already busting their chops, and adding this program will require easing up elsewhere. Who takes the hit? Students aiming for academia:

The DSU faculty is heavily involved with a large doctoral program, which frankly includes a far greater student-to-faculty ratio than is normal. This program seems to be quite successful in providing doctoral graduates for business and industry. However, possibly they should consider reducing the number of doctoral students targeting the academic market. The DSU faculty involved are all competent and dedicated and merit congratulations on their accomplishments, but this program adds a minor amount of work to a very stretched faculty. If they reduced Ph.D. admissions on the academic side of their doctoral program, that should more than compensate for the additional burden that might arise from the proposed program.

...The primary weakness I perceive is that faculty may have too much assigned responsibilities at DSU. I think this would be alleviated by reducing the Ph.D. admissions to focus on students in business and industry [David L. Olson, letter to South Dakota Board of Regents, 2014.03.19, Attachment III, Board Agenda Item 26-2(a), 2014.04.02, p. 29].

DSU has signaled its preference for producing practitioners over professors with its choice to offer the D.Sc. instead of the Ph.D. Olson's recommendation further clarifies what DSU's graduate program is and what it isn't. This new master's degree is for people who want to make big money working for the corporate-informational complex. If you're interested in knowledge for knowledge's sake, and if you just want to expand and share that knowledge, you'll need to apply elsewhere, because DSU won't have time for you.


Mitchell school superintendent Joe Graves browns his nose further, floating fudgy facts to fan Dennis Daugaard's fierce fiscal flogging of our fine K-12 schools. Superintendent Graves says South Dakota teachers get the lowest salaries in the nation because we have chosen instead to invest in smaller class sizes:

...according to Federick Hess and Eric Osberg, two researchers on school finance and its relationship to school effectiveness, the number of teachers between the early 1970s and today has grown 50 percent faster than student enrollment during that same time. While some of this can be attributed to IDEA and Title I, much of it cannot. So what has the education establishment been doing with all of these extra teachers?

They have been brought into the profession, in a collaborative though sometimes unacknowledged effort by the federal and state governments, to reduce class size. Hess and Osberg note that if teacher:student ratios were the same today as they were back in the 1970s, we would require one million fewer teachers. Removing that many positions from the teaching roles would mean, theoretically at least, though also persuasively since the percentage of budgets devoted to employee compensation has remained relatively unchanged over the decades, dramatic increases in teacher/educator salaries. In other words, we’ve put our money behind smaller class sizes rather than teacher raises [Joe Graves, "Small Classes, Smaller Salaries," Mitchell Daily Republic, 2014.04.01].

Graves suggests investing in smaller class sizes wastes money, since research doesn't show clear educational gains from lower teach-student ratios. But research also fails to show any connection between smaller class sizes and teacher pay. I put the NEA's data on average K-12 teacher-student ratios with recent data on average teacher salary by state. South Dakota ranks 37th for K-12 teacher-student ratio, 13.7, notably below the national average of 16.0. We all know South Dakota doesn't rank 37th for teacher pay. There are 12 states (including North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska) and one federal district that hire more teachers per 100 kids and still manage to pay each teacher more than we do.

But the kicker comes if you run correlation on those two sets of numbers. Excel spits out a basic correlation between teacher-student ratio and teacher pay of 0.026. That means there's almost no correlation. If all you tell me is that one state has a significantly lower teacher-student ratio, I can make no reliable prediction about their comparative teacher salaries.

In other words, Graves is blowing smoke. Citing smaller class sizes as justification for Governor Daugaard's budget austerity and South Dakota's teacher-pay penury has no basis in the data.


In the Heads in the Sand Department, the Sioux Falls School District is not tracking demographics among its open-enrolling students to check for trends toward racial or income inequalities in student populations at its schools:

Superintendent Pam Homan said she can look across the two dozen elementary schools in the Sioux Falls district and see diversity in each one. As for schools such as Longfellow Elementary, where 76 percent of the students are nonwhite and 34 percent of the neighborhood kids who should be attending there open enroll somewhere else, "I don't worry about that," Homan said.

...School board president Doug Morrison said there are many reasons parents choose to open enroll. "I can't speak to open enrolling out of a school because of a certain demographic makeup," he said. "I haven't seen that trend here" [Steve Young, "School Choice Opens Questions in Sioux Falls," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.03.30].

Parent and board member Kate Parker at least thinks there might be a problem:

"I don't have any hard evidence that we're sending our kids away from Longfellow because of demographics, but I can't imagine that it doesn't drive some people away," she said. "I think you see this migration of young families happening in our neighborhood, and I think some of them may be a little bit scared off by, I don't know, whether it's the diversity or the test scores because of that diversity" [Young, 2014.03.30].

Open enrollment isn't inherently racist or classist. Parker points to one of the benign reasons that diversity could correlate with higher out-enrollment. If I move into a town with more than one elementary school, my first urge is to enroll my daughter in the nearest school so we can walk there together each morning. However, if there are a couple schools nearby, or if there's another school near my work, I may want to compare test scores and send my daughter to the school that seems to produce the best results on paper. Since race and income appear to correlate with test scores, schools with more poor kids or more kids from other ethnic backgrounds, especially newcomers just learning English, will tend to have lower test scores. We thus will see some segment of open enrollers driving certain families toward certain schools that better fit the white corporate model of standardized, homogenized, industrialized education.

Dang. Even when we look for objective reasons to open enroll, we stumble upon racism and classism.

Space and resources permitting (we can't all send our kids to Rosa Parks for Spanish immersion), open enrollment in places like Sioux Falls offers parents and students reasonable liberty. If you see more educational opportunities for your kids at Washington than at Lincoln, that's fine. (My friends at Lincoln will say you're making a big mistake!) If you move into the Robert Frost neighborhood but you still want your kids to finish elementary with their friends at Laura Wilder, I have trouble coming up with a compelling state interest to say you can't.

But the state and the school district have a compelling interest in at least monitoring the exercise of that liberty to see if it unintentionally, unmaliciously, non-racistly leads to some sort of inequality that puts certain students and certain schools at disadvantages. We can't say that open enrollment promotes inequality, but we won't know if we aren't watching. Monitoring the demographic trends and impacts of open enrollment wouldn't mean we're out to stop open enrollment or implement forced busing, but it would provide the data we need to identify problems and design solutions.


The Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change has written a letter urging the Chamberlain School Board to allow American Indian students to sing their honor song as part of the Chamberlain High School graduation ceremony. Here's that letter in full:

Bernice A. King, King Center, letter to Chamberlain SD School Board, 2014.03.26

Bernice A. King, King Center, letter to Chamberlain SD School Board, 2014.03.26

These songs convey positive messages of value to students of all cultures. When they are sung in the Native language, they affirm shared pride in the wonderful Native American heritage of South Dakota and other states in the region. It would allow non-Native students to express their respect and goodwill toward native students, just as Native students have frequently joined in singing songs originating in cultures different from their own. When all students join together to sing songs of different cultures, it promotes an appreciateion of diversity, which is a very good thing to celebrate anywhere. As my father, Martin Luther King, Jr., said in his "I Have a Dream" speech, "With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood" [Bernice A. King, Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Ninviolent Social Change, letter to Chamberlain School Board, 2014.03.26].

Will the Chamberlain School Board respond to this call for a more perfect symphony representing all of its students? Or will more national attention like King's letter trigger the South Dakota bunker mentality and provoke board members to kick back all the harder and portray themselves as defenders of some South Dakota faith against the ingressions of outside agitators?

Chamberlain graduation is May 18, just seven weeks away.


Twitter alerts me to a new program, Leadership South Dakota, designed to "to attract engaged citizens from across the state, then provide them with the background, unique experiences and insights necessary to assume leadership positions at the community, state and national levels." Leadership South Dakota sounds very much like a state-level version of Leadership Madison and other local leadership classes.

The folks behind Leadership South Dakota also look very much like what we see at the local level: members of the power elites happily herding up-and-comers into their proper pens. Staffing Leadership South Dakota are GOP/education establishment pals Rick Melmer and Tom OsterTestimonializing for Leadership South Dakota is John Thune financier Jeff Erickson. Sponsoring the program are the usual characters: Sanford Health, First Premier Bank, Daktronics, Lawrence & Schiller, the Ramkota....

The Leadership South Dakota application asks applicants to "Describe the most notable opportunity and most significant threat facing South Dakota today." They provide three lines for a response.

Our greatest opportunity to recruit young people of diverse views to challenge our greatest threat, a monolithic and insular political culture.

Now if I can just come up with $3,000....

I'd like for Leadership South Dakota to surprise me by gathering and encouraging a diverse set of leaders who would challenge the established order that most of the sponsors represent. I hope they'll reach beyond their circle of usual suspects and foster new leaders who maybe don't have access to $50 to apply, let alone $3,000 to participate, or who don't have well-to-do employers willing to foot that bill, the additional travel expenses, and the inconvenience of replacement workers while their leaders-in-training are off getting experiences, skills, and access.

Applications are due May 30. The program starts September 11 in Brookings, hopscotches monthly to Rapid City, Pierre, Kyle, Sioux Falls, and Aberdeen, then graduates its fresh leaders in April at Chamberlain.


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