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SD lawmakers approve teacher bonuses, scholarships

By Chet Brokaw

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 7:30 p.m. MST

Rep. Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland, left, celebrates with South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 in Pierre, S.D., after the House gave final legislative approval to Daugaard's plan to give bonuses to top teachers. The Republican governor stopped outside the House chamber to thank those who had supported his proposal.

Chet Brokaw, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

PIERRE, S.D. — Without a single vote to spare, South Dakota lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a reworked version of Gov. Dennis Daugaard's plan to give bonuses to top teachers and offer scholarships to college students who agree to teach math, science or other critical subjects.

The House voted 36-33 to approve changes the Senate had made in the bill, which next goes to the governor for his signature. Nothing can pass the 70-member House without at least a simple majority of 36 votes.

After the vote, Daugaard went to a hallway outside the House to shake hands and thank representatives who voted for his proposal.

The Republican governor and other supporters have said the measure will boost student achievement by providing more teachers in critical fields and giving teachers incentives to excel.

Rep. Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland, who took the lead in promoting the bill during Wednesday's debate, said it will eventually provide $15 million a year to raise some teachers' salaries. A new evaluation system will help some teachers improve their performance, he said.

"This all leads us to a path of education reform," Brunner said.

But opponents noted that teachers have opposed the measure because it would phase out tenure and they believe competing for bonuses might stop teachers from collaborating with each other. Opponents said bonuses have not worked in other states and the bill does nothing to increase overall funding for school districts.

House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said the bill seems to assume that schools are performing poorly, but South Dakota students do well on achievement tests.

"This is not an investment in education. This is an attack on education," Hunhoff said.

The bill includes the governor's original plan to give $5,000 annual bonuses beginning in the 2014-15 school year to the top 20 percent of teachers in each school district, based on a new evaluation system and measurements of student progress. But school districts could create their own teacher reward plans or not take part at all.

The measure also would start a scholarship program in the 2013-14 school year that would choose up to 100 college students a year to receive help with tuition and fees if they pursue teaching degrees in critically needed subjects. They would have to agree to teach such a subject for at least five years in a South Dakota school.

In addition, the bill would give $2,500 annual rewards to math and science teachers beginning in 2014.

Tenure protection in state law would be eliminated in July 2016 for any teachers not already covered by the protection. Teachers who are tenured by then would keep it but could still be fired for poor performance. School districts could choose to continue to grant tenure to their teachers.

Daugaard has said the state has increased general financial aid to school districts for decades, but student achievement measured by test scores has not changed much. The governor said that means South Dakota should use rewards to encourage good teaching, which in turn should lead to higher student achievement.

But Rep. Elaine Elliott, D-Aberdeen, a longtime teacher, said she believes college graduates will decide to teach in other states because the bill shows South Dakota does not respect teachers.

"We are not going to attract the best and the brightest teachers with this bill. We're going to drive them away," Elliott said.

House Republican Leader David Lust of Rapid City said the reward system makes sense because some teachers who do not work hard are well paid under the current pay system.

Lust said the state should not be satisfied with its existing education system.

"I side for movement and change in an area that is so critical for our state," Lust said.

Brunner said school districts have had trouble getting rid of bad teachers because they lack adequate evaluations to show those teachers are performing poorly. A new evaluation system being developed will help teachers learn how they can improve, he said.

But Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, a retired teacher, said people from his area do not like the bill.

"Again, I'm struck by the lack of public open and enthusiastic support. There's no grass-roots backing," Bolin said.

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