SD House Republican lawmakers want school choice in state

A pair of Republican House lawmakers have proposed bills that would expand school choice and voucher programs in South Dakota.
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 5:12 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

PIERRE, S.D. - A couple of Republican South Dakota state lawmakers want to allow public education funds to follow students to the school of their parents choice.

Representatives Scott Odenbach (R-Spearfish) and Jon Hansen (R-Dell Rapids) are carrying a pair of bills that would be large scale expansions of school choice in the state.

HB 1233 would expand the “South Dakota Virtual School,” currently housed in the state’s Department of Education.

HB 1234 would “provide a voucher for students enrolled in certain grade levels at accredited nonpublic schools.”

“HB 1234 recognizes that every parent deserves the freedom to choose the best educational option for their child,” Hansen said in a press release. “In South Dakota that may very well be the general and uniform public school, or it may be a non-public school better suited to each child’s unique circumstances. We must ensure that parents are in the driver’s seat for their children’s education by making funding follow the student and not the system.”

According to the South Dakota Department of Education, the proficiency rates for English (ELA) is 51%, and 43% for mathematics.

For Native American students, its 21% and 12%.

“I think about the statement that was just put out by the Governor of Iowa recently when they passed their school choice bill,” Odenbach said. “They gave a good comparison and said we can fund both (public schools and vouchers). The vast majority of funding will still go to the public education system. But if we can help parents fund kids, who are all unique, I think that is for the best.”

But the bills, which just came out Wednesday, already have the opposition of the public education lobby.

They say that passing the bills would undermine the promise of public education.

“Let’s be clear, these two bills are voucher bills,” said Sandra Waltman, Government Relations and Communications Director for the South Dakota Education Association (SDEA). “Vouchers are when we take your tax dollars and give them to private schools, who get to pick and choose who their students are.”

Other Republicans raise concerns about the cost of the program, on top of funding the existing public school system.

Rep. Will Mortenson (R-Pierre) pushed back on the two bills Thursday.

“In South Dakota we have good school choice,” Mortenson said. “Are we going to choose to fund two or three different forms of education, and can we afford to do that in a low tax state?”

Odenbach says proficiency ratings are just the beginning of the argument for school choice.

“I think to the extent we can provide options for those families, whatever their income level is, to get their kid into the best situation possible that is specific to their circumstances, is what we owe to the people.”

Proponents for public education also point to lagging state funding for teachers and the public schools system as a whole. In this year’s budget, Governor Kristi Noem is proposing a 5% increase in public school funding, 2% above the required amount by state law.

Waltman and other public education lobbyists say they would like to see more go to the school systems.

“Our public educators take very serious the charge we have to educate every child who comes through the door,” Waltman said. “It doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from, their socioeconomic status, their race or religion, their abilities or disabilities. We educate every single student and we do the best we can with the resources we have.”

Both bills have been assigned to the House Education committee, but do not yet have a hearing date.