Governor Dennis Daugaard isn't the only public servant headed to China this month to drum up business for South Dakota. In perhaps the first national wire story ever filed from Revillo, Grant-Deuel School District counselor Dave Wagner is going headhunting... for rich foreign students:
Enrollment is dropping at the Grant-Deuel School, as at so many U.S. rural schools. Fewer students means less state funding and a slow extinction.
But Superintendent Grant Vander Vorst has an improbable plan to save his little school on the prairie - by turning it into a magnet for wealthy foreign students. This year, 11 students from China, Thailand, Germany and elsewhere account for nearly 20% of high school enrollment, bringing cash and a welcome splash of diversity to an isolated patch of the Great Plains.
...Superintendent Vander Vorst is so pleased, he's raising the stakes. His guidance counselor heads to China this month to begin recruiting students who will pay tuition, perhaps $18,000 a year [Stephanie Simon, "U.S. Public Schools Sell Empty Classroom Seats Abroad," Reuters, 2012.03.08].
Simon reports that the boost in state aid Grant-Deuel has allowed the school to hire an art teacher; they plan to add a business teacher next year. Hmm... if Governor Daugaard wants to help our rural schools afford better teachers, maybe he should take a moment during his meetings with China's corporate honchos to get them to send their kids to our excellent public school system.
Amazingly, the Tea Party weighs in against this example of small schools learning to compete for dollars in the global marketplace:
The arrangement disturbs some taxpayer advocates outside the Grant-Deuel district. "We're already strapped for education funding, and now the state is paying to educate foreign students who come here just for that benefit?" said Dawn Pence, vice president of the South Dakota Tea Party Alliance in Rapid City, part of the loosely organized conservative Tea Party movement. "I have a real problem with that. It shortchanges our citizen students" [Simon, 2012.03.08].
Wait a minute: how are local kids being shortchanged by having more students enroll, bring in more dollars, and keep their local school alive? How do kids suffer from the opportunity to learn side by side in their hometown with students from all over the world? How does such diversity pose any threat at all to our small-town clans? (Oh, wait: clan... maybe that explains it.)
I will admit to my own uneasiness about our public schools getting immersed too deeply in competition with each other for dollars. I would also hate to see the Legislature respond to such success by depriving our schools of even more public funding and telling them to make it on their own (and I don't put it past certain political forces in the state to try punishing small schools for successful competition).
But when money's tight, and when small schools can revitalize themselves by offering excellent educational opportunities to out-of-towners, I have trouble seeing the downside. Grant-Deuel is increasing the educational opportunities its own kids have, and it is introducing families around the world to the opportunities in South Dakota.