Home > Education, South Dakota > Education spending in South Dakota

Education spending in South Dakota

May 8, 2014

Education spending was a big topic in Pierre during the 2014 legislative session. Since the budget cuts in 2011 there have been legislators in Pierre trying to restore those cuts. At that same time there are many legislators that say the school districts must learn to use the money they get better. It is often brought up that the legislature does not get to say where money is spent in the school districts, that power falls within the realm of the school boards. It’s a debate that will likely continue for every legislative session going forward.

Which side is right? This post won’t provide any answer to that question. Anyone trying to say they have THE answer to such a complex issue is likely someone with an agenda trying to sell something they can’t possibly deliver on. But this post will at least attempt to bring forth some information to use when considering the question and some thoughts I have about areas that need to be looked at.

First I would note that public education funding by the State is included in the South Dakota Constitution. As a libertarian I would have preferred a different method of education than our current public education system. However even more than libertarian, I am a rule of law person. As such I believe the South Dakota Legislature should be following the state Constitution in matters of public education. Specifically Article 8, Section 1, of the SD Constitution says this:

Uniform system of free public schools. The stability of a republican form of government depending on the morality and intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to establish and maintain a general and uniform system of public schools wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all; and to adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.

This portion of the SD Constitution basically tasks the legislature to ensuring public schools are properly funded. So the question isn’t really if public schools should be funded by the State, but how much money should come from the state to each school district and how should that money be used.

Over the last thirty years there has been a trend of ‘throwing money’ at public education. Some would debate that the extra money being spent on education has provided a good return.  The chart below shows trends in American Public School Spending from 1970-2012 (chart taken from this CATO post). It can easily be seen that spending has skyrocketed with little or no actual increase in education quality.

Chart Source: CATO

Chart Source: CATO

It could be argued that the NAEP tests are a poor metric for measuring education quality. I would agree with that argument, but since we live in a country where bureaucrats love to try quantifying education returns I’ll have to use their numbers while looking at the subject. And according these numbers it would definitely appear that as a country we are ‘throwing money’ at education with little or no positive results.

Is South Dakota doing better? As a state I feel we do pretty good with our public education system. There is a chart to see how SD is doing as well. Below is a chart showing the percentage change in dollars per pupil (inflation adjusted) since 1972.

Image Source: Cato

Image Source: Cato

Due to the differences in data used this chart can not be directly used to correlate findings with the national chart. Yet in this SD chart it can clearly be seen that spending per pupil in SD has increased dramatically since 1970. Yet our SAT scores (adjusted for participation and demographics) have gone down slightly.

The above charts could lead someone to believe as a state we are overpaying for our public education. It could also be used to show that as a state we are spending education money incorrectly.

Teacher pay comes up quite often. According to the NEA the national average starting teacher wage in 2012-1013 was $36,141. The NEA also said the  South Dakota starting teacher was in that same time-period was $29,851. That pay puts South Dakota only behind Montana ($27,274) in having the lowest teacher pay when looking at the whole nation. This is definitely an area worth looking at. But does that mean the state should give more money to school districts so teachers can be paid more? Or does this mean school districts are prioritizing other budgetary areas over teachers pay? Or a combination of both?

Below is a chart I compiled through the Kids Count website. It shows the per-pupil education expenditures from 2004-2010, comparing South Dakota expenditures to that of the national average (these numbers are adjusted for regional cost differences).

Chart Source: Kids Count

Chart Source: Kids Count

Looking closer at the 2010 numbers it can be seen that South Dakota has a ranking of 21 in Per-pupil education expenditures.


Chart Source: Kids Count

By these numbers South Dakota was actually in the top half of the country in spending per pupil as of 2010. Our ranking has likely gone down since the 2011 budget cut. But even a 10% cuts put South Dakota well above the $7,042 that the fiftieth ranked state Utah spends per pupil.

As I said at the beginning of this post I won’t offer any single answer to education spending in South Dakota. But here are some areas I think parents, legislators, and school board members must look into going forward:

  • Simply increasing the money spent per student doesn’t seem to actually impact any education outcomes. Maybe instead of looking at how much money is spent it is time to instead look at HOW money is spent by each school district.
  • Decreasing the amount of money spent per pupil as a state is also likely a bad idea. Some districts within our state can likely increase their quality with less money, some districts may actually need more money. Each district should be looked at individually, instead of as a whole.
  • Teachers in South Dakota are paid very poorly when compared to the national average. Yet our spending per student is nowhere near the bottom of the list. Are school boards properly prioritizing teachers over pet projects?
  • As South Dakota continues to implement Common Core will it further solidify the ongoing trend of spending more money on education with little or no results? Standardization has administrative costs that will take away from spending on actual education and teachers.
  • Perhaps investing more money directly in teachers and giving them the ability to get the best out of each student will provide a  better return on investment than trying to get every student to meet one set of arbitrary standards.
  • The legislature alone cannot ‘fix’ problems with public education in South Dakota. It will take a mixture of work between parents, teachers, school boards, the legislature, and many other parties to find solutions.
  • All of what I said above could be completely wrong and end up heading the state down the wrong direction. That is why it is important there are many stakeholders voicing their opinions on this topic. No single person or group will have THE answer. There is no single answer.

One last thought as I close this post. The charts above should not be used to prove anything. Statistical data NEVER proves a point. Rather such data should be used as a discussion point within a much larger conversation. If South Dakota truly cares about public education, we as a state must decide if we will continue down the current status quo path of continually throwing money at education with no regards as to how the money is used.  Alternatively I hope that we as a state will determine it is time to find the best way to spend our money.

  1. Liberty Dick
    May 8, 2014 at 11:50 am

    I sat through a great talk last November (ish) with someone who studies these things at NSU, I wish I could remember his name, but he has spent the last 20 years studying everything from local to international schools. After about a 3 hour discussion the only conclusions he could draw from any statistical data is testing, standards, and school expenditures don’t matter. The only factor that created higher test scores was societal view of teacher’s standing in the community. Higher paid, more respectable, local role models for teachers is what created the better students.

    • May 8, 2014 at 12:05 pm

      I wish I could have been there for that discussion! I really think focusing on teachers is the key to public (and private) education. But in order for things to change I think various groups (parents, teachers, politicians, etc.) are going to have to discuss the topic openly. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening any time soon………

  2. Steve
    May 8, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    I appreciate the focus on teachers and their pay in your post. However, I have to correct one wording issue on teacher pay. You wrote “That pay [$29,851] puts South Dakota only behind Montana ($27,274) in teacher pay when looking at the whole nation.” The impression from this wording is that SD is second highest in starting teacher pay; Instead, SD is ahead of ONLY Montana – we are second lowest in starting pay in the nation.

    The salary picture becomes more clear when average salary overall is viewed: the national average rate is $56,383, and SD’s rate is $39,580 – the nation’s lowest. Teacher salaries start at 82.6% of the national average, then drop to 70.2% of the national average over a career.

    This has two effects: it reduces the ability to retain experienced teachers in the classroom, and as an additional consequence, reduces the pool for excellent education administrators.

    Local districts spend the vast majority of their general fund budgets on salaries and benefits; that state-allocated pool does not currently have the depth to allow many local districts to drastically increase salaries. SD schools do not have a spending problem, they have a revenue problem. The mutual finger pointing of local boards and the state legislature seems to have had the effect of getting BOTH off the hook on the issue of funding responsibility.

    • May 8, 2014 at 2:28 pm

      Wow, I worded that quite poorly. Fixed. Thanks!

      I think you bring up a great point as to teachers dropping even further behind in pay throughout their career. It is hard for anyone to go into a career where they feel there will be no real advancement opportunities. That is especially true if any of the few advancement opportunities include little or no extra pay. I’ve spoken to some ex-teachers who have made similar statements. Actually, now that I think about it I know a lot of ex-teachers. I wonder how many are driven out of the profession in SD.

      As to spending versus revenue. I still think both ends of the equation have problems. This year I think the legislature missed an opportunity to actually increase revenues in schools. They did this by going with Daugaards budget (plus a little extra so they look generous). But at the same time I think local districts can do a lot more to use their money more wisely. True, if our current methods of education are retained it will take a lot more money, because there simply isn’t that many more places to cut expenditures. But that would suggest that education is being done using the best methods. There are other methods of education out there that are focused more on the teachers/students, and less focused on administration and testing. Maybe SD is not ready for these other methods.It would be good if we as a state could have that conversation though.

      I do think you are right that both the legislature and school boards are being left off the hook by pointing a finger at each other. But I don’t think one side or the other can fix any problems alone. I think parents, teachers, and concerned citizens should be holding both accountable and working with both groups on solutions. It is doubtful that will happen any time soon though…

      • Merlyn Schutterle
        May 8, 2014 at 7:57 pm

        Most parents have made schools totally responsible for all the education and have failed to take any responsibility themselves. Most parents could home school these days since a lot of it is on line anyway.

  3. Merlyn Schutterle
    May 8, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    There are limits to gains in test scores regardless of how much money we spend. There are other models of education that solves most of these problems, but you have to be able to diagnose the problem and think outside the box. We need better students, not necessarily better teachers. When I turned responsibility of learning over to the students and taught less, the scores went way up. That is a concept not accepted by the establishment. We could get much better education at a fraction of the costs if we move to a better model.

    • May 8, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      I think that would be an excellent approach to be looked at.

      It actually reminds me of a friend who teaches math at a private elementary school in MN. When she has a student that has major problems in one of her classes she takes an approach I’ve never heard of before. She has that student (who is struggling in the current level of math) become a tutor for younger students in a less advanced form of math. She has found after they start tutoring the younger student that they become better at performing at the more advanced math they have been struggling with.

      I don’t know if something like that would work on a large scale. But it would be worth looking at.

      • Merlyn Schutterle
        May 8, 2014 at 7:49 pm

        It can work. I was doing it 35 years ago.

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    June 21, 2014 at 2:02 pm

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  5. tara volesky
    July 7, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    Very good comments. I believe it starts at the top. Some of our school administrators are poor money managers. It seems they always want to cut from the bottom up. School boards needs to be better advocates for teachers, parents, and students instead of rubber stamps for Superintendents. We are administration heavy. Give pay raises to the secretaries that do the majority of the work and cut the fat at the top. Teacher moral is at an all time low in SD. Let the teachers have a voice. Mike Myers will be a game changer in education and health care.

  6. tara volesky
    July 7, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Ken, get ready, you are at the top of the list to be a co-host for a non-partisan show on SD Politics.

  7. Merlyn Schutterle
    July 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    I hope you meant morale, and not moral, Tara.

    Our education system is obsolete and designed to maintain the establishment rather than actually improve useful education.

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