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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Legislative Notes: Curd vs. Noem on Small Schools

Of interest to small-town voters: The South Dakota House yesterday passed HB 1150 on a 40–29 vote. Compare the votes of two of our Republican candidates for U.S. House: big-city doctor R. Blake Curd votes aye, while small-town ranch gal Kristi Noem votes nay.

Dr. R. Blake Curd evidently feels it's perfectly acceptable to punish small schools for their success in attracting open enrollees. Evidently supporting school choice isn't a big issue for this conservative. Noem apparently feels we can find budget savings for the state somewhere other than on the backs of successful school districts.

Locally, District 8 Reps. Mitch Fargen and Gerry Lange joined Noem in voting against HB 1150. Let's see where our senator Russell Olson goes on this school-choice issue.

In other news from the Legislature yesterday:
  • HB 1222, the farmers market bill, got unanimous support from the House (yay!).
  • SB 21, a rather mushy bill that sort of bans social investing with the state investment funds and sort of doesn't, passed the State Senate unanimously. The more direct SB 134, stopping state investment in Iran, has passed the Senate and awaits attention from House State Affairs.
  • Even deferred to the 41st day does not mean dead! Senate Appropriations resurrected SB 193, the pro-life bill that would extend Medicaid to all pregnant women. Alas, they made that effort just to give the bill a formal "Do Not Pass" recommendation.
  • Oh yeah, and HB 1277 & HB 1278, those silly little anti-blogger bills, went nowhere in committee. Thank you, Mr. Powers, for your testimony. And thank you, members of the committee, for your rationality. Now, back to the counterplans....


  1. CAH:

    You need to stop describing this bill as punishing success. Your statement implies:

    1. These small schools are superior to large schools. Please SHOW ME. Define success, and show me they are successful.

    2. This bill is punishment. Why is it punishment to level the payments for providing the EXACT SAME SERVICE? Punishment would be to pay a small school less than a large school to educate a student. If that were the case, I would completely agree with you can call it unfair!

    A more appropriate description would be "SB1150 levels per pupil funding regardless of school size and could cause funding problems for small schools which are currently receiving subsidies".

  2. Also, do you believe that medicare should pay small clinics more than large clinics for the same treatment/medication? For example, if you go to the Madison clinic, should your insurance pay them $50 for two asprin, but only $10 at one of the Sioux Falls hospitals?

  3. Hang on, Tony. I knew you'd be coming. That's why I referred to success at attracting open enrollees. Indeed, that may not be hard evidence that the school is offering better educational outcomes... but it is evidence in conservative free market terms that the school is winning the perception of certain parents that the school offers better value. This bill punishes smaller schools that are successful in the contest to win open enrollees.

    The broader question about what we ought to pay (or what the state ought to reimburse) for arguably the same service should be broader than this school-choice issue. If the Legislature really believes what you believe, that no school should receive any greater amount for services provided per student than aqny other school, then the Legislature should scrap the entire small-school adjustment and the sparsity factor. Note the House Education committee even added an amendment to protect the extra funding certain small schools get, just because they happen to be farther away from other districts and aren't open to as much open-enrollment competition. And really, that amendment was just to round up votes from Bison and other far-flung areas, not to embrace any coherent principle.

    So the legislators aren't really embracing any of the philosophy you espouse. They're just trying to squirrel away a few dollars without making hard policy choices. The big-district legislators like R. Blake Curd are also trying to punish the smaller school districts for luring kids away from their big districts.

  4. CAH-

    Gotcha, so your position isn't that small schools are better at educating and therefore deserve more funding. You believe that the legislators are passing this simply as a money grab regardless of how it impacts policy and therefore should be shot down.

    So for you, this isn't a question of whether or not the policy change is good or bad (regardless of motive). You would rather see things stay the same (even if there were positive aspects to the policy change) if the legislators that wanted to change the policy weren't doing so for reasons that you considered valid.

    So, should your headline read:
    "Legislators attempting to remove subsidies to small schools for fiscal reasons and are being somewhat hypocritical because they are leaving other subsidies in place." ?!?

    Or perhaps simply:
    "Legislators attempting to remove one of the many small school subsidies already in place strictly due to financial constraints."

    I think you may be letting your personal attitudes about education cloud your view. There simply is no objective evidence to justify spending the extra dollars on these smaller schools.

    I also dismiss your argument that since some students are open enrolling that means it's successful. We don't know what is motivating open enrollments. Open enrolling could be due to something as tangential as not liking the lunch menu. The roll of the school is to educate. We need to evaluate based on that metric.

  5. Our children are NOT our enemies!

    If students are more successful in a small school environment because of open enrollment then isn't that a good thing. Any graduation rate less than 100% is NOT acceptable. We should be ashamed as a state and as a nation of our dismal graduation rates. As a state we need to reinstate alternative school funding and get those rates up for those kids who slip through the cracks.

  6. Tony, you're right: for the purposes of this debate, I remain agnostic on whether small schools are inherently better educators than large schools. We can find all sorts of variance in outcomes. More importantly, parents seek a variety of outcomes and opportunities just as consumers seek a variety of goods and services. So my main question is not whether this is a good way to save money but whether we as a state are willing to support the availability of that variety.

    I agree that open enrollment is not a direct metric of objective educational outcomes. Some Madison kids open-enroll at Chester just so they can be starters on the basketball team. I will open-enroll my daughter in any nearby school that offers a serious debate program and AP classes (Madison's seem likely to die out). Each choice represents a parent's subjective decision about what constitutes a good educational experience. But each choice still registers that the school has "succeeded" at something.

    I could choose to agree with you that the sum total of open enrollment choices are a wash when it comes to measuring educational outcomes. But that would only show the further absurdity of the proposed funding change in HB 1150. The amount a school receives per student should not hinge merely on whether a student "chose" to be there. Really, under open enrollment, every student has "chosen" to be there. Why give $5500 to a school for the student who rides 8 miles to school but only $4700 for the student who rides 9 miles to school from across the district boundary? That funding choice has less to do with educational outcomes. And, whatever motivations parents may have for open-enrolling their kids elsewhere, this small-school penalty may actually discourage small schools from trying to offer better educational programs that would attract students from other districts.

    If I understand the funding formula correctly, we give more aid per student to smaller schools because there are higher per-pupil costs than in larger settings (economies of scale). However, the tilt toward smaller schools in the formula may also recognize tax base: Rutland and Montrose don't have nearly as many McMansions to tax as Sioux Falls and even Madison. A small-school adjustment may be necessary to prevent good education opportunities from concentrating only in the wealthier districts (yup, redistribution).

    Now former legislator Lee Schoenbeck has said the funding formula exists not for any of the above reasons but just because the legislators needed to buy votes from smaller districts to pass the bill. I still contend that motivations behind this bill and its scarcity amendment are pure politics and a nasty swipe at certain small school districts by big-city legislators. So I'm still o.k. with saying no to this bill purely on the grounds that the legislators need to go back and do some actual analysis to justify any changes they want to make in the formula.

    Tony, you at least want to look at educational outcomes and hard data, and that's great. Come home and run against Russ Olson! (Or run against some of those Rapid City yahoos.) HB 1150 doesn't even do that. HB 1150 ignores educational outcomes. It also ignores the cost of doing business. It is bad policy, based on petty motives and anti-small-town sentiment.


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