PIERRE, S.D. — Democratic legislative leaders proposed measures Thursday that would boost state financial aid to school districts, prompting Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard to criticize an approach that he said has failed to improve student achievement.
The Democrats' plan would set a funding goal equal to the average spent by South Dakota and the adjacent six states, a move that would call for total spending per student to jump about $1,700, or about 20 percent, from recent levels. Using U.S. Census Bureau reports, the plan's funding goal would be $10,212 per student this year, up from total spending of $8,507 in 2009.
A second bill introduced Thursday by Democrats, who are the minority party in the state Legislature, would require state aid to school districts to rise yearly by the same amount that overall state revenues increase, up to a maximum of 6 percent.
House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said once the state sets a funding goal for schools, officials can decide how to come up with that money, which he said schools need after education funding was cut last year in an effort to balance the budget.
"We put our schools in a big hole over the last couple of years. We need to rebuild," Hunhoff said.
Daugaard said the Democrats' plan is disappointing because it follows the traditional pattern of throwing more money at education.
"It proceeds from the assumption that by spending more, you have better student achievement, but history has shown that's not true," the governor said. "Instead, the focus should be on how are our students achieving and how can we improve achievement."
But Democrats said last year's cut in state aid caused school districts statewide to lay off teachers and other staff, and are arguing that schools need enough money to operate and provide services.
Democrats also criticized the governor's plan to award bonuses to the top teachers in each school district, saying it would discourage collaboration while causing dissension among teachers.
Rep. Larry Lucas, D-Mission, a retired teacher, said many teachers have told him they oppose the proposed bonuses because it would divide a school's staff.
"They don't want the target on their back amongst the other staff," Lucas said.
Daugaard's education plan, unveiled Jan. 10 during his annual state of the state speech, is one of his top proposals for this year's legislative session.
The governor said Thursday his plan to give $5,000 bonuses to the top 20 percent of teachers in South Dakota school districts each year would help improve student achievement by encouraging and rewarding the most effective teachers, but would not denigrate those who do not qualify.
"The single most important factor that contributes to student achievement in the schools is the teacher," Daugaard said.
The governor's proposal — which would cost the state $10 million — would ask school districts, starting in the fall of 2014, to identify their top teachers using a new evaluation system that ranks them based on factors such as student test scores.
Daugaard, in an effort to deal with teacher shortages, wants to give math and science teachers at the middle school and high school levels yearly bonuses of $3,500, beginning in the fall of 2013. It would cost the state $5 million per year.
Senate Democratic leader Jason Frerichs of Wilmot said his party supports Daugaard's effort to set up a new school performance-evaluation system. He said school officials also want flexibility in applying any bonus system approved by the Legislature.
Republican lawmakers said they agree with the governor that the key goal is to improve student achievement, but are likely to change parts of his proposal.
Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, a retired teacher, said the governor's plan provides a starting point for legislative debate. And Rep. Phyllis Heineman, R-Sioux Falls, also a former teacher, said lawmakers want to hear from teachers, school administrators and the public educators and the public.
"We're open to ideas," she said.