South Dakota's Education is on trial and taxpayers, you're paying the entire bill
After presiding over House Education committee for 6 years, it was a strange experience to sit in the Hughes Co. Courthouse one day last September to watch from the gallery as education in South Dakota was on trial.
The education funding lawsuit began in Hughes Co. Circuit Court in early September and has now ended with the decision in the Judge's hands. At issue is whether the State's education funding violates Constitutional requirements. The plaintiffs are a small group of parents and students whose attorneys' fees are currently being paid by almost 100 school districts and the SDEA. (Sioux Falls is not funding the lawsuit.. The Defendants are the State, the Department of Education and Secretary Melmer, the Board of Ed, the Governor, and the State Treasurer. The Attorney General's office is defending the State and ultimately, you the taxpayers.
The day I attended, Secretary Rick Melmer was on the stand for the Defense testifying that we were meeting our Constitutional requirement as he outlined the success of South Dakota's students--
In 2008 state testing, (DakotaStep), 76% of all SD students were proficient or advanced in Math, up from 59% in 2003; 84% of all SD students were proficient or advanced in Reading, up from 71% in 2003. Statewide 2008 ACT scores increased to 22 with 77% of all seniors taking the test; national average was 21.1. Our high school graduation rate is 88% and we lead the nation in the percentage of high school grads continuing their education. South Dakota ranked 5th in the National Rank of Academic Achievement, a report card published by the American Legislative Exchange Council. (www.alec.org)
Announcement of these achievement levels should be a time for celebration for students and teachers; and gratitude to the taxpayers that invest over $1 billion annually in our K-12 schools. Instead, as the attorneys for the plaintiffs interrogated the Secretary, it became a day full of indictments against the State, against local control, and ultimately, against you the taxpayer for not spending enough. The Secretary, who has been both teacher and administrator, consistently testified that school and community leadership are the key elements of educational excellence. Without that leadership, additional resources do not translate into higher student achievement.
As I listened to the Secretary describe the key elements of the Department of Education's mission: student learning, leadership, service, I thought what a shame to divert their attention away from kids to this lawsuit! I've been privileged to work with these educators over many years. I know they have dedicated themselves and hundreds of millions of federal and state tax dollars partnering with teachers and administrators to improve student achievement and opportunities. Their work has resulted in significant improvement in student learning. Now, how many in the department, who would like to be concentrating on learning, leadership, and service, have needed to redirect their focus to defend the state taxpayers against this lawsuit. What lost opportunities!!!
And taxpayers, you are paying for it all--the plaintiffs' legal fees with education dollars from school districts and the State's defense. All this money; all this time; all this energy is being expended to demand more money from you, the taxpayers. While we will not know the Judge's decision for a few months, losses in court cases in other States have resulted in significant tax increases and loss of local control.