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State Legislature Lacks Courage to Fund Education, Shifts Burden to Feds, Locals

I've written on multiple occasions that South Dakota is dropping the ball when it comes to the state providing its fair share of funding for K-12 schools. A variety of education experts brought that message to the South Dakota Legislature's interim committee on the education funding formula Wednesday.

Some of the most compelling data on Pierre's miserly treatment of our schools comes from the South Dakota Budget and Policy Project. Their study of per-student K-12 funding in South Dakota finds us lagging sorely behind neighboring states and the nation in state support for education. Consider these four charts, showing per-student funding in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars:

SDBPPTotal-per-student-spending2 As you might expect, South Dakota spends less per child on K-12 education than our neighbors and the nation. But if South Dakota has better purchasing power, maybe we can get as much bang out of fewer educational bucks than Minnesota and other places spend.

So let's compare how much we spend on our kids' education by the source of the dollars, federal, local, and state:


Looking good there: we consistently bring home more federal bacon per child to our schools than the regional and national average. According to the SDBPP, South Dakota gets 37% more per student from Uncle Sam than the national average and 29% more than the regional average. Yay, federal money!


But even with that higher-than-average influx of federal dollars, our local districts are still keeping up with national and regional averages for the amount of local dollars dedicated to education. In 2011, says SDBPP, South Dakota's local per-student K-12 spending was 3% lower than the national average and 5% lower than the regional average.

So if South Dakota spends significantly less per student overall, but we're getting lots more federal money than most places and spending just a little less locally, where's the gap come from? Pierre:


It is in state source per-student funding that South Dakota most significantly lags the national and surrounding states averages. As of 2011, South Dakota’s state source average per-student funding was 46% lower than the national average federal per-student funding and 53% lower than the surrounding state average. Analysis of the 10 year trend reveals South Dakota’s deficit in state-source per-student funding has been steadily worsening relative to national averages (from negative 38% to negative 46%) and surrounding state averages (from negative 33% to negative 53%) [Joy Smolnisky, "Per-Student K-12 Funding in South Dakota," South Dakota Budget and Policy Project, 2013.06.18].

It's one thing to say that things cost less in South Dakota, so we can afford to spend less on education. It's another thing, a really cowardly thing, for our state legislators to shirk their duty to fund education, use as a crutch the federal money they tend to demonize, and expect local school districts to work up the political courage that our legislators themselves will not.


  1. Michael Black 2013.06.22

    Cory, let's just say that the legislature increases it's share of funding by 50% so we can be comparable to area states.

    What benefits can our students expect to receive from the additional money?

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.06.22

    Schools could use or misuse additional funding in many ways. But given that staff is the largest chunk of any school's budget, more funding would likely mean fewer layoffs or maybe hiring back some of the staff we've shed in past years. More staff means lower student-teacher ratios, more course offerings, and more time for teachers to give more students individual attention.

  3. Curt Jopling 2013.06.22

    I guess it may be hard to come to grips with the idea that in today's economy there is little or no need for public education. There are few decent paying jobs for high school graduates and post secondary education is becoming more and more expensive with no real demand for graduates. The wealthy can pay for the best education for their children so why should they care about paying taxes to educate others. Their wealth is no longer derived from a robust American economy. Thus the rush to underfund public education and replace it with a voucher and/or for-profit program. Education will become like health care in this country. A good education will be had by those that can afford it. Hell, even Haiti has public education available to every child. Unfortunately they can't afford teachers, classrooms, and books because they don't have an economy.

  4. Michael Black 2013.06.22

    You are trying to define the problem as a lack of taxation. That is a poor way to get more money.

    Tell us that you can dramatically raise graduation rates and create programs to help students become better citizens after graduation with more money and then the people will gladly give you their support.

  5. Donald Pay 2013.06.22

    Michael Black has hit on a problem that districts have to overcome if the inertia in state ed funding is to be addressed in a rational manner. Legislators don't want to just hand out money/increase taxes without knowing whether that money will be put to good use. On the other hand, each district has different needs and so a simple plan to distribute any additional money for specific needs can't be developed. This problem, though, really began because the Legislature never considered what an adequate education is when it developed the current funding formula.

    The current funding formula was not meant to fund education; it was meant to fund property tax reduction/limitation. There was no thought given to what educational programming was to be funded. Absolutely zero amount of discussion centered on what educational programming should be funded. Rather, the formula was designed in a manner similar to many other states' formula changes in the 1990s, as a way to limit local property tax increases by two mechanisms: (1) providing more state money but (2) limiting growth in school spending to a set amount per year. By doing this the state education funding formula became less about school funding and more about funding on-going property tax reduction/limitation.

    The question Michael Black asks was never asked by the Governor/Legislature in the 1990s. South Dakota has been suffering under a funding formula that never, ever asked that question, and which, as a result, has shortchanged children's educational needs. And the reason it was never asked was this: the education funding formula was not meant to fund education, but to fund property tax reduction/limitation.

  6. Owen Reitzel 2013.06.22

    "Tell us that you can dramatically raise graduation rates and create programs to help students become better citizens after graduation with more money and then the people will gladly give you their support."

    The way I understand it our schools are turning out pretty good children right now with little money or support from the state. Michael you're assuming we have major problems with kids now. Can we do better? Sure can. But al in all our teachers do very well with little help.

  7. Stan Gibilisco 2013.06.22

    All of this business about wages and costs and taxes and funding distills down to a single humain trait.

    Everybody wants more money. But not everyone is willing to work harder in order to get it.

  8. Kathy Tyler 2013.06.22

    I really hope that you aren't saying that teachers don't work hard! A look into the future: ask the graduating class of your town or neighboring town, whatever, "How many of you are going into education?" Then ask yourself who is going to replace the 50% of the state's teachers who will reach retirement age in the next five years.

  9. rollin potter 2013.06.22

    Kathy Tyler: with the low wages these teachers say they are receiving how can they afford to retire?!!!!!!

  10. Kathy Tyler 2013.06.22

    I attended three of the four listening meetings that were held prior to the committee meeting. Over fifty schools were represented by approximately 120 people.
    It was not the teachers that were asking for more money. It was the school board members and administrators. These are the ones seeing a crisis in the schools. We are running out of teachers.
    Teachers aren't complaining...they usually don't; they are moving to other states or to private sector jobs.
    Schools have cut as much as they can--electives, benefits, counselors, school nurses, paraprofessional staff. No, it's not the teachers asking for funding, it's the people running the schools. They want to provide the best education they can, and it's getting harder and harder.
    Something I hadn't heard before--schools are having a hard time hiring paraprofessional staff...Taco John's pays more.
    Please don't blame the teachers for the needed increase in funding; blame the ones who want the best education possible for the students of South Dakota; and hopefully that's you.

  11. Stan Gibilisco 2013.06.23

    Kathy, nope, I don't mean to imply that teachers don't work hard. As a group, they probably work harder than most other people.

    I think that when we look around ourselves with clear and keen and unbiased eyes, we can differentiate quite easily between the parasites and the contributors in society.

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