Lawmaker: Education funding is convoluted question

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) 9-08

The question of whether South Dakota adequately funds school districts is a convoluted issue, a state lawmaker testified during mid September in the trial of a lawsuit that challenges the state’s education funding system.

Sen. Ed Olson, R-Mitchell, a longtime chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he believes the funding system has enough money to provide an adequate education if some districts consolidated, shared services or took other steps to become more efficient.

But Olson also said the state underfunds education in the broad sense because there’s not enough money to attract all the needed young people into the teaching profession.

Olson said he has been told that 35 percent of the new teachers who graduate from college in western South Dakota go to Wyoming to work because schools there pay more.

He said his concern “is making sure the pipeline is full of qualified applicants who want to teach.”


Olson was the last witness called as lawyers challenging the education funding system ended their initial presentation of evidence. The state started presenting defense witnesses and both sides will present rebuttal evidence later.

State lawyers asked that the case be dismissed, arguing that those challenging the funding system have not provided evidence to show that the system violates the South Dakota Constitution. Circuit Judge Lori Wilbur of Pierre did not rule on the request immediately.

Assistant Attorney General Richard Williams said a judge in a prior case ruled that the constitution requires a general and uniform system of free public schools that are adequate to allow students to become responsible and intelligent citizens.

Olson, who was teacher and principal for nearly three decades, is ending a 16-year legislative career this year because he is term-limited in the Senate.

Olson and Keith Moore, director of Indian education in the state Education Department, both said American Indian students have achievement levels below the state average.

“That is South Dakota’s Achilles’ heel, the education of our Native Americans,” Olson said.

The senator acknowledged that in pretrial testimony he said school districts are underfunded in South Dakota. In testimony Tuesday, he said education is underfunded if nothing changes, but he believes some districts have to merge or find other ways to become more efficient.

Money also does not necessarily relate to student achievement, Olson said.

South Dakota’s teachers are the lowest-paid in the nation, but the state’s students have some of the nation’s highest scores on college entrance exams and achievement tests, he said.

Moore said American Indian students fall behind other students in graduation rates, test scores and other measures of achievement.

But Moore said more money will not solve all the problems. Reservation schools already spend up to twice what some other schools spend per student, he said.

“It’s not all about money,” Moore said. “For Native American students, there are larger issues than money.”

Indian students need programs that help them deal with problems caused by living in poverty, dealing with racism, living in a culture that hasn’t always valued the white society’s education system, Moore said. Many elders, because of experiences with boarding schools in the past, believe schools exist to take away Indians’ culture and language, he said.

Economic development would help Indian students because families with higher incomes tend to have children who do better in school, Moore said.

A federally funded program has been a great success in helping Indian students stay in school and prepare for college, he said.

Moore also said it’s difficult to recruit and keep good teachers in reservation areas because they have a tough time adjusting to conditions and have trouble understanding the cultural and social influences on students.

Moore said he also has seen bad administrators hurt Indian education. Some lose their jobs and then move on to work in other Indian schools, a process he said he has called the “dance of the lemons.”