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39th in Expenditures, 51st in Pay? Class Size Explains Daugaard’s Distraction

South Dakota ranks 39th for expenditures per K-12 student but 51st for teacher pay.

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.

K-12 class sizes and per-student expenditures, South Dakota vs. region, South Dakota Budget and Policy Project, 2015.02.06.
K-12 class sizes and per-student expenditures, South Dakota vs. region, South Dakota Budget and Policy Project, 2015.02.06.

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.


  1. mike from iowa 2015.02.23

    52nd in teacher pay. Wingnuts are in a constant state of denial.

  2. o 2015.02.23

    Cory, the more I think about it, the more I think "summer study" is a misnomer for what the Blue Ribbon Task Force will do. The preponderance of statistical evidence all seems to point in the same direction, I don't think there is a lot to "study" at the heart of the matter. Instead, the focus should be the application of this data into real policy proposals. Once legislators, teachers, parents, board members, and administrators all get to the same table, then dealing with the state of education can move forward. Again, I think education could go the path of the past few big lifts for legislative policy (juvenile justice, justice, and infrastructure). Certainly there will be a bit of blame pushing between the legislative/executive and the local boards, but that goes to the central need of getting both entities at the table at the same time.

    Class size really is about opportunity for students. Smaller classes allow more attention for each child and the opportunity for better relationships between students and teachers. Both those factors are good for students and learning. Wyoming has legislative mandated caps K-3 (I believe at 16) because they believe in students getting the attention they deserve. Supt. Graves and those who also look only at "efficiency" need to be balanced by the those who understand what is best for the students of SD when we look at allocations of our resources. I hope for the sake of our students the BRP does not take "lowest possible support" as the standard for education for SD.

    I am also glad that the 39th (or 41st) in per-pupil allocation statistic is being weighed against what those same sources reveal about our state's contribution to that allocation.

  3. tara volesky 2015.02.23

    Good observation Cory. You explained it well. What they will eventually do is cut from the bottom up instead of the top down.

  4. Wayne B. 2015.02.23


    Maybe I'm just especially dense this Monday morning... but how does class size explain the 39th / 51st disconnect? It would make sense if our expenditures related to class size were the largest in the region, but they're not.

    If you're going to convince taxpayers they need to cough up more money for teacher pay, you can't just say the 39th / 51st disconnect is a "question that merits discussion."

    If the desired outcome is increased teacher pay, you're going to be hard pressed to convince folks to pour more water into a leaky bucket. If we increased our state allocation to 40th or 41st, how much would we gain on the teacher pay scale assuming all of it went to teacher pay? And what would we taxpayers get in return for less in our pockets? Satisfaction knowing we value teachers a little more than dirt?

    But here's the real challenge, from where I stand.

    Why should we care enough to open our pocketbooks?

    You're asking folks to make a normative judgement that teachers should be paid more because they deserve it. That'll work for anyone who is a teacher, or has high regard for teachers and an altruistic vein.

    It won't work for anyone who's had a horrible teaching experience or anyone with business acumen.

    Look at the business mindset that came out of the Governor's office with HB 1234. Pay for performance. That bill, as much as you (and I) detested it, at least tied increased pay to the normative value of higher academic achievement.

    And there's the key. For the teacher pay movement to win, you've got to convince the majority that paying teachers rock bottom salaries is hurting our educational outputs, OR that paying teachers more will get us better educational outputs.

    "Smaller class sizes are worth spending some money."

    This ties in. We've apparently decided we can get better education with mediocre teachers if we give kids more one-on-one time with those teachers, as opposed to less one-on-one time with great teachers.

    So far this seems to be working. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, South Dakota is getting a great return on its investment. We're pretty much middle of the road in educational outcomes. We're even in the top ten for states being at or above 8th grade math proficiency.

    We're even in the top ten states of high school graduates going to college (we just can't finish, apparently).

    So here's the crux of it. If we want to pay teachers more, it needs to be linked to better academic outcomes. It can't just be for the sake of paying people what they're worth.

    As an aside: citing your source (the NEA), the estimated state contribution as a share of costs for SD in 2013-2014 is 35.6% - that's pretty different from the 30% you state.

  5. Bill Dithmer 2015.02.23

    Wayne B , that was a great post.

    The Blindman

  6. mike from iowa 2015.02.23

    Why don't wingnuts untie teacher's hands like they do when they de-regulate business?

  7. o 2015.02.23

    Wayne: "Maybe I'm just especially dense this Monday morning... but how does class size explain the 39th / 51st disconnect?"

    To answer your question, if the state gives money per student to 32 students, if that is one class - with one teacher, the amount available to give the teacher would be more than if those 32 are split into two or three classes where the same pool of money (which would be constant for textbooks and materials in one class or 5) would be divided among two or three teachers. To use the often overused pie metaphor, the pie is cut into increasingly smaller pieces for each added teacher with the same resource pool of money. This is the center of the consolidation debate. Each kid gets the same, but having more teachers means each gets less.

    Wayne: "If we want to pay teachers more, it needs to be linked to better academic outcomes. It can't just be for the sake of paying people what they're worth." I agree to a point. The trouble now is that the state seems to have come to the tipping point where there are fewer available teachers than needed - a shortage. Not paying teachers what they are worth is draining the available pool of talent for our state and our children.

    I do appreciate your thoughtful perspective of the average SD citizen.

  8. Wayne B. 2015.02.23


    I understand the pie metaphor. It makes sense, and I assumed that's where Cory was going... but Cory's data suggests:

    * our class sizes aren't dramatically different from our neighbors
    * our unit efficiency is exceptionally high compared to our neighbors

    Therefore it's hard to accept the hypothesis that small class sizes are the cause for the 39th/51st disconnect. Our instructional costs per student are just too low to see class size make an impact. So since we're efficient in spending our funds based on class size, those funds must be going somewhere else; find that and we find the disconnect's source. Does that make sense?

    So the state gives $4764 per student. 32 students = $152,488. We split into two classes. That's $76,224 for each. But Cory's data show's we're spending $80,000 on each of those classes. So the state's per student allocation is covering all but $4,000 of that. What're all the local funds doing? It's not spent on teachers (obviously). It's not spent on other instructional costs - that would show up in the data as and show us to be less efficient. So... what gives?

    Perhaps it's something not distantly related, such as the number of districts & facilities we have? I don't know. If they ask the right questions, maybe the summer committee can figure that out.

  9. o 2015.02.23

    Wayne, two things: 1) the state per student allocation is the total per student allocation. The local effort (unless there is an opt-out locally) has been taken by the state and rolled into that single allocation. Even though it comes "from the state" there is a bit of a laundering of local efforts going on there. That is how the general fund is created - #students x PSA.

    2) Any time we talk averages, we know that the "average" is not the typical. Especially with the small school effect, there are many very small classes that bring the average down. That is the point Cory is making with his district by district cost chart: Your 32 kids could literally be one, two, three . . . five or six classes across the state in one or may districts. All that affects costs - but not funding allocations (except for the small district funding bump).

  10. o 2015.02.23

    Wayne: "Look at the business mindset that came out of the Governor's office with HB 1234. Pay for performance. That bill, as much as you (and I) detested it, at least tied increased pay to the normative value of higher academic achievement."

    How about we fairly compensate teachers for the CURRENT level of academic performance before we look at requiring an increase in that performance to bring our teachers up from the dismal pay they receive in comparison to the achievement they get from students? Why should there be the expectation of more work/success before we get teachers to the level of fair or average wages?

  11. Wayne B. 2015.02.23

    You can preach to me all you want, O, about fairly compensating teachers for their current output. I'll even agree with you. But it isn't going to change the framework. How do you convince my neighbor, the 50 year old trucker with health issues who's struggling to make $16 an hour that he should pay teachers more? How do you convince my neighbor who's retired that she ought to pay more in property taxes or sales taxes for teachers, when she never even finished highschool?

    It's a question of economics, O. Would you honestly decide to start paying your mechanic $80 to change your oil when you've been paying him $40 to do it? It's not that you're getting better oil - same stuff as before. Just... he's worth it, you know? These past 5 years of $40 oil changes has kept your car running, so that's worth more.

    No. We like things to be cheap. If we didn't, WalMart wouldn't exist. Right now we're paying teachers $X for producing academic achievement Y%. Paying $X+$D to just keep Y% the same isn't going to fly.

  12. o 2015.02.23

    Wayne, first I understand your position is one that has to be addressed to the people you list, and I have enjoyed batting it back and forth with you. However, the whole proposition that funding for education has to come from the most regressive places possible is as bad an assumption as saying teachers ought to be valued (preaching) on face. I truly hope that the "everything is on the table" promise discusses how we fund as well as how much. Maybe it's time to live up to the promise of video lottery funding of education? maybe it's time to address the regressive nature of taxation in SD in general? Maybe it's time to look at the exemptions to the sales tax that do not go to your 50 year old trucker friend or elderly home owner? There is wealth in SD; the real question is do we support where it is concentrated now, or ought education have a bit more access to that wealth?

    SD has done the grand experiment of the boiling frog with teacher salaries. Slowly and constantly, the state has taken the salaries of teachers lower and lower until we have hit the tipping point of shortages. Now that the state has created a job market that perspective teachers want no part of and experienced teachers are leaving; it is not the goodness of their harts that will require the state to reach into its wallet, but the real need to fill jobs essential to the Constitutional responsibility of our state and the well-being of its children.

    I must change the oil in my car. If the mechanics decide that $40.00 does not cover the costs of that service, that $80.00 is required to cover the costs, then I pay the $80.00. The $40.00 option will be removed. I might pout and complain, but somethings the "cheap" option is just not available any longer.

    Wayne, to bring up salaries to a fair, regional average, how much improvement in student performance ought to be required? Does this question become the justification for the perpetuation of a clearly broken (for the teachers) system? Was the mistake of the teachers not driving student success down to levels that match teacher pay? Do student success outcomes need to plummet to 51st before teacher pay can be addressed?

    By its very nature, education is about improvement.

    We want health care to be cheap, but that decision is not ours to make - we must pay the going rate. We want all kinds of essentials to be cheap, but are still required to pay the price that is asked. SD has become spoiled by a broken system that now is finally coming apart at the most fundamental level.

  13. Donald Pay 2015.02.23

    I agree with Wayne, but first you have to get to a fair value for "job worth," and then you have to have a better understanding of student academic achievement.

    First, "job worth," as determined by the market, can be determined by looking at teacher salaries in equivalent states. It's not as if SD hasn't had some experience with this. In the1980s, the state commissioned a study of "job worth" (a range of wages for a position, with the mid-point of that range being the goal) for state employees. Based on that study, the state set long-term goals to increase state employee salaries. These goals were implemented through the annual state budget, where each employee was provided a raise based on the market value of the job and how far above or below the mid-point of that value that employee stood on the wage scale. This was implemented over the course of at least ten years I believe, at which all point state employees were supposed to be at least at the mid-point of full job worth. There were considerations given for longevity, as well.

    It would be relatively easy to do this for teachers, given that the state did this for all of its job classifications.

    Once that's taken care of, you probably do need to address student achievement. Now we do that with top-down standardized testing measures, but it needs to be bottom-up. I know Rapid City wanted to get to a point where Individualized Learning Plans would be charted for each student to serve as a means to assess achievement gains. I'm not sure how that would work, but at least it would be more in tune with parent and student needs, rather than the needs of some bureaucrat in Pierre.

  14. Wayne B. 2015.02.23

    Do you know how hard it is to have a conversation with a vowel? Please find a better moniker... or maybe a name.

    O... I'm not the one trying to raise teacher pay. You need to create a compelling reason to convince the folks in this state why they should a) collect more tax dollars for education or b) scrap other state programs to increase education funding AND THEN explain why it should go to teacher pay and not a host of other options to help the students.

    If we want to pay our teachers what Minnesota pays its teachers, I want them in the top 10 of educational outcomes, just like Minnesota. Seems fair. Really, they ought to be outperforming Minnesota since we're already doing so well with what we give teachers.

    And we haven't even touched the surface of the "dead weight" issue...

  15. Tim 2015.02.23

    If there was some way to convince the state that it isn't in the states interest or the people living in the state to keep giving away $600 a year in tax loopholes. That would be a good place to start don't you think?

  16. Tim 2015.02.23

    $600 million. Sorry

  17. CLCJM 2015.02.23

    Another part of this that has been only obliquely referenced in the oil change analogy. The oil change becomes more expensive because the cost of everything, including the cost of living in general, go up. If we give COLA's to workers, we don't demand some kind of improvement or increase in productivity. We give those kinds of raises to retain our employees.
    We have not done that for our teachers or paraprofessionals for that matter, either(in the interest of transparency, I have a daughter who is an EA in the SF district).If we refuse to pay anyone what they're "worth", then we risk losing them to another employer or in this case, to other states.
    A big part of why we've been so unwilling to pay our teachers...and because so many right wingers have vilified and devalued teaching. And one person's bad experience with a teacher or a lack of education shouldn't determine whether all teachers get a living wage.If you have a bad experience with the mechanic who changed your oil, you don't prevent all mechanics from getting a raise. You may complain about that mechanic and he may even get fired. But the way things are right now, there are so few teachers that if teacher is incompetent, the district is reluctant to terminate them because they don't have any candidates to replace them with! And this is especially true with the EA's. There are often many positions open for long periods of time. Just check their website.

    I really think the BR study is just more stalling. I read somewhere that the number of studies already done is in double digits. How much "study" do we need? And if the BR study of the highway funding is any indication, it will be futile, anyay. That study recommended $100M in funding. DD promptly disregarded that # and slashed it to $50M in the same SOS speech where he joked about being Grandpa Cheap!
    The only way this problem, like so many others in this state, Wil get fixed are when We, the People force change! Maybe, the success of the initiative in 2014, could be implemented to solve this issue!

  18. JSR 2015.02.23

    do any of you in this conversation know how a districts 'tax base' affects the teacher pay discussion?

  19. Owen 2015.02.23

    You've brought up some good points Wayne B. As far as funding I believe a new source of funding has to be found. Increasing property taxes isn't the answer-for anyone. One idea is one that always gets shot down but it would a more fair way to tax and that's an income tax. If it's done right.
    Second, how are you going to implement a performance base pay or better know as merit pay? Nobody body wants bad teachers, but how do you judge?
    My wife is a long time teacher as was my dad and they both had parents who thought they were the best teachers and some not so much. It's real easy to say we want merit pay, but how to fairly implement is the problem.
    What it comes down to Wayne B is that we have no leadership in Pierre. Daugaard is more than happy to kick the can down the road. He appoints a blue ribbon panel to study what is already known.

  20. Owen 2015.02.23

    Plus Wane B what does your 50 year trucker think of the gas tax going up?
    Will your elderly friend also get mad where her property taxes go because the county or city need more money?

  21. Roger Elgersma 2015.02.23

    When I was in grade school we had eight grades and four teachers in four rooms. When my Dad was attending a one room country school near Beresford they had all eight grades in one room with one teacher. He was the only one in his class. So do we now have an average of fourteen in a class or fourteen in a room. When one class is doing their homework the other grade is getting taught. You do not need one teacher for every fourteen kids.

  22. grudznick 2015.02.23

    Mr. Elgersma, that is an interesting concept harking back to my days as a student as well. Some administrator can probably figure out the math better than I but even if we can't cut the number of teachers in half let us say we keep the best 75%. Then for every $100 those 3 good teachers used to make now they'd get $133 dollars. All for better use of studyhalls and less homework.

    The unions will be against this.

  23. o 2015.02.23

    JSR: "do any of you in this conversation know how a districts 'tax base' affects the teacher pay discussion?"

    The short answer is that it doesn't. Locals send their money into Pierre, Pierre then sets the per-student allocation and then puts in the amount to get from the local level of support to the PSA. If a local would provide almost all the PSA, Pierre puts in very little, if the local provides nothing to the PSA (an exaggeration), Pierre provides it all. Teacher pay is all a general fund expenditure.

    The local can kick in more money if they opt out.

  24. o 2015.02.23

    Grudznik - isn't increasing the workload of a teacher 33%, then increasing their salary 33% just paying them to do more work? Is it your position that teachers are underpaid now because they don't teach enough students? I believe there would be plenty of elementary teachers especially that would back me in saying that going from 26 to 35 or 30 to 40 students in a class would be detrimental to the education of those students.

  25. grudznick 2015.02.23

    No, Mr. o. I am following Mr. Elgersma's idea above. Same work for teachers. We could call it tag-team learning or some snazzy name like that. The Blue Ribbon Panel will probably look into these types of ideas this summer. I hope they put Mr. H on that committee so he can testify on some of the ideas.

  26. o 2015.02.23

    grudznick, I think your math is off on this one. If we go from 4 teachers (who in the example handle the differentiation of students in 8 grades) to 3 teachers, then the 3 teachers are doing 33% more work absorbing the 4th teacher's students (student instruction, formal assessment, homework feedback . . .). Paying them 33% more (the 4th teacher's salary divided three ways) is doing more work for more pay - not strictly speaking a "raise."

    Or am I missing something here?

  27. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.02.23

    Roger E, I spent my first few years in a one room school with one teacher. A critical difference between that setting and current educational settings is cultural. Families respected and supported their children's teachers and passed that on to the students.

    From 3rd through 8th grade I attended St. Lawrence Grade School. One building, 2 grades per room. The same cultural attitude of honor and respect for teachers prevailed.

    That cultural mindset was absolutely critical to making those school settings effective. Except for the few remaining very small schools, teachers no longer receive that level of support. Nor do many children and families value education as much.

    My contention is that comparisons between SD education prior to America's bicentennial and after is not valid.

  28. leslie 2015.02.23

    translation: STFU grudz ( in the parlance of notable federal judge to SCOTUS concerning its 5 party votes in HOBBY LOBBY :)

  29. Wayne B. 2015.02.24


    My trucker neighbor wouldn't mind the gas tax if it meant Highways like 19 & 42 were actually smooth; his lower back is so tore up that those bad roads mean more healthcare costs for him, so it gets taken out one way or another.

    My other neighbor was terrified of the bill to remove the property tax freeze. She remembers very vividly counties raising taxes at rates not unlike healthcare costs.

    Here's the challenge... everyone's talking about making the pie bigger - bringing in more revenues to increase teacher pay. But South Dakota's pie has grown immensely in just the last decade and a half. I remember when we used to have billion dollar budgets, and I'm not that old. Maybe we could find the room if we stopped picking corporate winners and losers with special economic development funds.

    Owen, there has been quite a bit of work done looking at individual student progress. If the question of performance is how much did a teacher improve a student's knowledge, skills, and abilities, then it makes sense to figure out what the KSAs were at entry and exit of a semester long class. Base performance pay increases on that, not COLA.

  30. JP 2015.02.24

    14 Kids in a classroom???? That would be great! Try 26-30 in my room instead. Big difference!

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