I have heard Republican legislators respond to questions about teacher pay with that statistical comparison at both crackerbarrels that I have attended this month. Governor Daugaard cited this fact in response to questions about teacher pay during 2014 campaign debates at Dakotafest and the State Fair.
South Dakota Republicans cite these figures because they know they are running out of excuses for valuing South Dakota teachers less than every other state does. Legislators and the Governor offer these numbers to distract us from the state's inaction in the face of the growing teacher shortage, divert blame from the Legislature to local school districts for keeping money from teachers, and excuse the Governor's Blue Ribbon Stalling Tactic.
While the SDGOP's motives for peddling the 39th/51st comparison are nefarious, the question merits some discussion. But the South Dakota Budget and Policy Institute (looking at data that ranks us 41st, not 39th, in per-student spending) spares us another summer study and explains that we outspend a few other states for smaller class sizes:
South Dakota averages 13.7 pupils per teacher. Although South Dakota’s class size is slightly higher than its neighbors, its cost per student for instruction is lower because we have much lower teacher salaries. With a constant class size only OK has lower instructional cost per student than SD
The nine states that have lower instructional costs than South Dakota all have larger classroom sizes, ranging from 14.7 in Texas to 22.8 in Utah.
If the classroom sizes in these nine states were comparable to South Dakota’s classroom size (13.7), the per-student-instructional cost would be higher in every state except Oklahoma [Joy Smolnisky, "Instructional Cost Per Student in South Dakota," South Dakota Budget and Policy Project, 2015.02.06].
Smaller class sizes are worth spending some money. Smaller class sizes are also unavoidable in smaller districts where fluctuations from grade to grade may have the lone fourth-grade teacher working with sixteen kids one year and just eight the next. Check the expenditure-per-student data for South Dakota schools, and you'll see most of the big spenders are smaller districts, while most of the big districts (which can more easily smooth out fluctuating student populations across classrooms) are on the lower end of the expenditure rankings.
Mitchell superintendent Joe Graves was hinting at the class size issue last week when he proposed solving the teacher shortage by getting rid of more public school teachers. If they have to pay teachers more, South Dakota Republicans would love to do it by paying fewer teachers.
South Dakota class sizes are in the middle of the regional range, yet all of our neighbors spend more per student and per teacher. In similar conditions, our neighbors raise more public money for their students and place a higher value on the service their teachers provide.
Over the last decade, states have provided 43% to 49% of funding for K-12 education, with local governments shouldering just a few percentage points less of that burden. In South Dakota, the state picks up closer to 30% of the tab for K-12 education. Maybe local districts have a little more control over capital outlay levies and can at least spend to maintain their facilities, but Pierre is choking off the general fund dollars they need to pay their teachers competitive wages.
SDBPI notes that since 2004, South Dakota has dedicated less of its general fund expenditures to K-12 education. In 2004, the state spent 37% of its general fund on K-12 education. In 2014, the state spent 27% of its general fund on K-12 education.
We do not need a summer study to understand the problem. Our per-student expenditures are inflated by slightly better student-teacher ratios. Smooth that factor out, and our teacher pay is still rock-bottom, due to the state abdicating its commitment to K-12 education. With those facts in our hands, the only reasons for a summer study are delay, distraction, and a desire to drive more teachers out of South Dakota.