South Dakota continues slide to bottom of education funding

Continuing a decades-long trend, a new report shows South Dakota spends less on each student in K-12 education than any state in the region.

In fact, only six states spent less per student in 2009 than South Dakota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Census Bureau study, which was released this week, shows the state spent $8,507 per student in 2009, ranking it 44th in the nation. The national average, meanwhile, rose to $10,499. While spending increased from 2008 to 2009, the state’s ranking still dropped from number 42 to 44.

The report’s findings were not a revelation to school districts in South Dakota, which are now in the process of cutting their next fiscal budget by 6.6 percent after the Legislature approved Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s budget earlier this year that reduced aid to the schools.

“It’s certainly nothing new. Obviously, we haven’t found a way to change things,” said Dave Janak, budget director for Rapid City Area Schools. “I think it makes an argument for having a discussion about revenues. The governor did a lot about expenditure cuts this session and didn’t feel a discussion about revenue was warranted yet. But when you consistently show up on bottom of these lists, you have to wonder about revenue.”

Rapid City Area Schools recently passed a preliminary budget of $189 million, a $10 million reduction from last year, but will dip into reserve funds to avoid program cuts.

The study also points to the disparity between state support and local revenues, according to Brian Aust, spokesman for the Associated School Boards of South Dakota.

While South Dakota ranked 44th overall, state government’s contribution of $3,260 per pupil ranks last in the nation. Conversely, the local tax contributions were 23rd in the nation.

“Local taxpayers are really stepping up to the plate, but it shows a growing imbalance,” Aust said. “With the state cutting back so much, we will continue to bear the shame of investing the least in our children.”

The local burden is likely to increase, according to Aust, who noted that nine state districts that have combined for an additional $12.2 million in new opt-out requests since Daugaard signed the budget. Districts have the option of opting out of property tax freezes to contribute more for local schools.

Opt-outs have seen a range of support throughout the state. Last week, Yankton voters overwhelmingly overturned the school board’s decision to opt out in an effort to raise an additional $4.1 million.

“We’re going to end up with a ‘haves and have nots society,” Aust said. “Some areas like Sioux Falls took the opt-out in stride, investing in schools, but that’s not the case in every community.”

Also this week, voters in Tripp overwhelmingly approved a measure to continue an opt-out of $300,000 annually for seven years, something that shows each community has its own priorities, according to Daugaard spokesman Tony Venhuizen.

“We obviously knew that passing a budget that was balanced would require some tough choices for schools and Medicaid providers,” Venhuizen said. “What we’re seeing now is local control and action. We have some districts using reserves or management decisions to make only minimal cuts, while others use the opt-out.”

State Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City, said cutting education was an “exceedingly painful and difficult decision,” but pointed out it is the first time in decades the state has considered such a measure.

Lust also said the annual ranking focuses solely on spending, with no consideration of achievement. South Dakota ranked seventh in the nation for ACT scores in 2010. He pointed to Washington, D.C., as an example of waste, ranking second in spending with $16,408 per student.

“Clearly, the education system in D.C. is not two or three times better than South Dakota even though they spend two or three times more per student,” Lust said. “Fundamentally, the reason South Dakota is near the bottom in state support for education is the structure of our system and the fact that we don’t have a state income tax.”

Aust said D.C. is the go-to argument that shows low academic returns. However, he said, the situation is a macrocosm of South Dakota, with its areas of extreme poverty.

“If we reverse the trend of turning administrators into annual budget cutters and give them flexibility, we could produce some very good academic returns,” Aust said. “There are a lot of dedicated education professionals that could perform even better if you take the chains off.”


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