“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”
—James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

So this is how the system works ... or doesn't

We suspect state lawmakers are patting themselves on the back, imagining they achieved a victory for education.
Yes! They beat back the governor's 10 percent budget cut and brought the drop in state aid down to an as-yet-unknown figure, but widely anticipated somewhere in the vicinity of 6.6 percent.
Spare us the premature and undeserved celebration. Just because 6.6 percent is less than 10 doesn't make it good or worthy of our applause and appreciation.
Picking through the budget rhetoric and political posturing, we can't help but think there was a less destructive way to resolve the state's structural deficit. While the governor and his minions cry poverty, other lawmakers claim funding sources exist that remain untapped.
According to Sen. Jim Hundstad, Democrats and several moderate Republicans have offered alternative plans, all of which have been tossed aside and deemed  unworkable, without any in-depth consideration or willingness to work together.
Rep. Spence Hawley noted yesterday that South Dakota schools never received last year's federal stimulus money intended for education. Our schools really could have used that $26 million.
House Minority Leader Rep. Bernie Hunhoff pointed today to the state's trust funds, which he says have gained $17 million in the last month alone: "We've bankrolled some $800 million. Democrats here are looking for bi-partisan support to use $36 million from the Education Enhancement Trust fund for schools and $15 million from the Health Care Trust Fund for Medicaid. It's our last gasp in this too-long drama."
No kidding. We're all for being thrifty and watchful of the dollars we spend, but the constant nickel and dime-ing of education is shamelessly hypocritical — particularly when the leaders of this state get elected on platforms that promise to prepare our students for the future and work to keep young people in South Dakota.
How can we not see the wisdom in giving our kids educational advantages and opportunities to broaden their horizons? Every economic indicator points to an increasingly competitive and global society, where the highest demand is for skilled and educated workers.
Is striving for mediocrity the message we want to send? Be the best you can almost be?
South Dakota can and should be better than that.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What a difference a day makes

Friday's doom and gloom turned a little rosier today with new forecasts for incoming state revenue. The Joint Appropriations Committee determined that receipts from taxes and other revenue will come in about $14 million higher than what Gov. Daugaard originally predicted.
So, at this moment, the mood for funding education in South Dakota seems less bleak. And, there are signals that the governor may be loosening his grip on the 10 percent cut.
Whether that means education will end up facing an 8.6 percent cut or 6.5 percent or 5.2, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, in the eternal quest for truth in governing, we're wondering about this information from Sen. Jim Hundstad, District 2. He seems to think that there is more money floating around than we've been led to believe.
House Minority Leader Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, District 18, says the point Hundstad is trying to make is that South Dakota is cash rich and getting richer. However, he says, "the governor's office would argue that we still need to limit spending to annual income."
Hunhoff also points out that we have about $800 million in reserves and trust funds, and even the earnings are not being used: "We're certainly not bankrupt like California and some other states, and we could easily come up with a three-year plan to ease out of the structural deficit. But, the governor has refused to do so, however parts of his budget cuts are actually shifts of expenses to future years."
State Rep. Spence Hawley of Brookings has been looking into the reports of extra money stuffed in the state's mattress. He says it is true that the general fund balance grew in the last few months, but that stems from the fact that the state has been using federal stimulus fund dollars for education payments instead of taking the money out of the general fund. That means the checking balance will start to decrease as expenditures will be larger than incoming revenue.
Still, Hawley says, "I'm not saying that I'm agreeing with how the state spent the stimulus III education dollars. It was a slight of the hand between general fund education dollars and the stimulus money. It was meant for the schools to get extra funding, which they never received."
It is difficult to divine the politics from the truth and the statistics from the spin. Most unfortunate is that the future of our children gets left hanging in the balance.
Hunhoff says, "I think the governor's staff is at least partly playing to a national fixation on cutting government, even though our situation in South Dakota is very different from Washington and most other states."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Leaders absent when we need them most

As lawmakers head back to Pierre for the final week of the session, we find little reason for optimism that anything of substance will be accomplished despite assurances otherwise.
Gov. Daugaard, fresh off a gathering with his brethren, reportedly is feeling refreshed and emboldened because South Dakota is not in as dire straits as other states and his draconian 10 percent across-the-board cut will be our salvation regardless of the long term consequences for education.
Hard to reconcile that this is the same man who campaigned — with a straight face — on a commitment to education; the same man who is now massaging the data to claim that his 10 percent cut is really only a 5.4 percent cut.
What the governor fails to divulge is that he adds into the equation money districts cannot spend on educating children. He does this to reach the $8,800 per child cost rather than the actual $4,800.
Even though funding for capital outlay, capital projects, pensions, food service and special education DO NOT go into the general fund and CANNOT be used to pay salaries and other costs associated with the school day, Daugaard lumps the money together and says the cuts are not as drastic as educators insist.
Such disregard for the truth is shocking, particularly when the tales of devastation are lined up like semis waiting for I29 to open after a blizzard.
Even more incredulous is the stunning and shameless hypocrisy demonstrated by legislators every step of the way when it comes to the children of South Dakota. Session after session, our lawmakers boldly jump on the fetus bandwagon. Fine, they want to protect the rights of the unborn.
We are not going to jump into the abortion fray, but we can question the concern and care for a child once he or she is born. Tough luck. We got you into the world, now you are on your own.
We have no money for education, but regardless of claims to the contrary, taxpayer dollars will be spent to defend the legitimacy of HB1217, the bill that would mandate women ‘counsel’ with non-medical, ideological agencies before terminating a pregnancy.
We can strip our schools of academic excellence and co-curricular activities that help develop our children into well-rounded, successful citizens, but God forbid we ban texting while driving.
What’s the defense? Despite state after state protecting its citizenry from ill-conceived idiocy, our lawmakers claim that the legislation would be too messy, too complicated, too whatever to enforce.
We can’t even see our way clear to protecting our children from dangerous chemicals in plastic without ridiculous justification, but we can hold the line when it comes to education.
We know there is a financial problem in South Dakota that demands attention. All condescending lectures aside, we get that the state budget has its limits and we do understand structural deficits.
But remember, it’s not as if these problems suddenly hit overnight; they have been a long time coming — particularly in the field of education funding. We have yet to see a legislative session pass where education funding was NOT at issue. And yet, where have our lawmakers been? Absent and long overdue.
Instead of lining up rank and file behind the governor and his shortsighted 'plan,' our lawmakers should break from the mindset that is Pierre and come up with legitimate, long-term, viable, responsible solutions. Instead of whining about the angry emails and ruling out every option offered their way, they need to get to work.
If thoughtful and reasonable discussion can happen on facebook, why not in the chambers of the South Dakota Legislature.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The sounds of silence

Much to our disappointment and dismay, a pivotal week in Pierre is wrapping up quietly and with little, if any, movement toward salvaging current levels of state aid to education. Here is the latest and not-so-greatest roundup of what's happening in the state Legislature:
• Committee endorses bill to allow special election in November on tax hike (Munsterman's Plan B)
• Governor determined to veto bill that would allow special election
• Bureau of Finance and Management estimates on state revenue
• The problem with HB 1230 and corporate handouts
At the Education First forum last weekend in Brookings, Democratic state Rep. Spence Hawley commiserated with the crowd on the devastating budget cuts spearheaded by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, but conceded that the minority party held little, if any, sway.
Sen. Larry Tidemann and Rep. Scott Munsterman, both Republicans, insisted they were sympathetic to the plight of public education in the state and were working hard behind the scenes to do something, but didn't offer any specifics.
Tidemann defended his vote to approve the governor's budget, with the Senate amendment tacked on to make it apply only to 12th graders. The strategy, he said, was like a basketball game — you want your teammate to pass the ball back to you so you can score a basket. He also said lawmakers couldn't divulge exactly what they were working on; that that would be like the Packers giving the Steelers their playbook before the Super Bowl.
Taking Tidemann's cue and going along with the sports metaphors, as the week comes to a close without even the slightest hint of action, vision or leadership, we're thinking it's time to start booing the home team off the court.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Last ditch effort to make a difference

While most of us could not make the trip to Pierre today for Stand Up for Education day, there is something we can do as the legislative session winds down and lawmakers decide on the governor's budget — email every legislator in the state of South Dakota.
Barring a surprising turn of events, the educational landscape in South Dakota looks depressingly bleak. But, we do not have to sit back quietly while lawmakers ignore the call to leadership and dump this state's problems on its most vulnerable citizens.
Take 20 minutes and go to this link. Write an email in the box provided, click through the list and change the name each time you send the email.
Let our state's lawmakers know that even though we cannot be in Pierre today, we are there in spirit. Tell them that the state has neglected its duty to find a viable revenue stream to support education. The system must change before the future of our children and South Dakota are irreparably harmed .

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We, the people, are part of the problem

After writing every state lawmaker in South Dakota, we were pleasantly surprised that several of them took the time and energy to send a personal reply.
Yet, as promising as that might sound, depression set in with the responses sticking to party lines — Democrats lamenting the pending education funding cuts and blaming the Republicans, and Republicans saying sorry, there is no money and no other options.
 Same s@*t, different group of legislators. Whether it's here, Madison, Wisc., or Washington, DC, the inability to break partisan deadlock is long past tired and old. We know it sounds hokey, but can't we all just get along? There is a greater good at stake.
This is the kind of setting that begs for bold leadership and vision, but all we're getting is stunted, inside-the-box thinking.
The news out of Pierre today didn't boost any hope, even if it was limited:
• Sen. Larry Rhoden's SB152, which would drop Daugaard's 10 percent cut to 5.6 percent, where it seemed to be hanging in limbo.
• Sen. Cooper Garnos decided his SB133, which shifted state aid payments to free up money, wouldn't work and asked to have it killed.
We hate to say it, but whether it's at the national level or here on the open plains, we have gotten what we deserve. These are the people we put into office.
Sure, some of the candidates, like Gov. Daugaard (read his Plan for Education, particularly page 8 on his commitment — ha! — to education funding) were misleading if not less than truthful. But still, ultimately, we are responsible.
We've been letting our lawmakers off the hook and not holding them accountable. Year after year, we send them to Pierre, they squabble about education funding and do nothing to fix the system.
If we don't like how our elected officials are behaving and the policies they are implementing, we have the ability to change that. The key is setting aside the sound bites and the spin and doing our homework.
Unfortunately, the next election won't come soon enough to save us from the looming disaster with education.
In the meantime, though, we can educate ourselves. Here is a good place to start learning and asking questions: Primer on the South Dakota Budget.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The hypocrisy of education funding cuts

 Paul Krogman writes in today's NY Times about the colossal mistake of slashing aid to education. He also points out the devastating hypocrisy of lawmakers who champion these cuts:
"Today, advocates of big spending cuts often claim that their greatest concern is the burden of debt our children will face.
"In practice, however, when advocates of lower spending get a chance to put their ideas into practice, the burden always seems to fall disproportionately on those very children they claim to hold so dear."
More specifically to South Dakota, The Antidote, put out by the South Dakota Alliance for Progress, weighed in with a critical assessment of what our illustrious leadership is doing:
"There's nothing left to cut. Ten years of balancing our state budgets on the backs of children has devastated and decimated public education in South Dakota. Public education is broke. No blood from this turnip. Dead. Done. There is not an 'after-last' place. Last is last."