Friday, January 15, 2016

The Year to Act on Education

A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard

The 2016 Legislative Session began this week. This year, I am proposing that South Dakota address the issue of teacher pay.

We all know that the key to student achievement is an effective teacher.  We also know that South Dakota’s teacher salaries are lowest in the nation and have been for decades.

South Dakota competes with our surrounding states for teachers, and we are falling further behind them. Ten years ago, South Dakota’s average teacher salary was about $2,000 behind North Dakota. We were 51st and they were 49th. Montana was 47th and Nebraska was 42nd.

Today, we are still closest to North Dakota among our surrounding states. But the gap is $8,000. We still rank 51st. North Dakota moved from 49th to 36th. Montana moved from 47th to 28th. Nebraska moved from 42nd to 32nd.

If South Dakota wants to maintain high student achievement, we need a new generation of high quality teachers.

To address this need, I am proposing a one half cent increase in the state sales tax. This will fund a new school funding formula that will move South Dakota’s average teacher salary from $40,000 to a target average of $48,500. At that level, South Dakota will be competitive with surrounding states.

The new funding formula will fund schools based on a target average salary of $48,500 and on a target student-to-teacher ratio for each district. That is not a measure of class size – it is a measure of all instructional staff per student.

Here is what the state is offering schools: the state will give school districts enough funding to pay the target salary, if the district reaches the target student-to-teacher ratio.

This new formula will create a more transparent funding system, based on actual costs. State policymakers will be able to see that schools receive enough money to pay their costs. At the local level, the new formula will lead to informed conversations about how local decisions impact a school’s ability to reach the target average salary.

As we ask schools to pay teachers more, we must also give them tools to be more efficient. My plan includes several measures to allow schools to become more efficient and save money. An expansion of the Statewide Center for e-Learning at Northern State University will make more high-quality online courses available to students, at no cost to their home schools.

The state will also expand successful programs that encourage sharing of services. For example, the state already negotiates centrally for Internet broadband access, and provides that service to schools. This saves schools more than it costs the state. We can expand this approach to other areas, such as purchasing, payroll administration or software licensing.

The introduction of new funding also allows the state to correct inequities. Under our current formula, property taxes are equalized across districts, so children receive uniform education, regardless of property values in their districts. However, the formula does not equalize some revenue sources, such as wind farm taxes, bank franchise taxes, the gross receipts tax on utilities and traffic fines. My proposal will treat all of these sources like property taxes, so that all schools are treated fairly.

The one half cent will generate $40 million in new revenue beyond our needs, however, so I am also proposing that this excess be dedicated to property tax relief. My plan imposes caps on school reserves funds, and limits future growth of property taxes for capital outlay. These are positive steps that benefit taxpayers and ensure that the funds we spend benefit today’s students.

We all want what is best for our children. We want to provide them with a quality education. And we know that requires a strong workforce of great teachers. This is the year to act.