Legislator oversight panel plans to keep watch on S.D. Education Department through session

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A watchdog panel of the Legislature has taken partial control over the South Dakota Department of Education.

The unusual move came last week during the final 2019 meeting of the Government Operations and Audit Committee.

Members voted 8-1 to create a special subcommittee.

Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican, will run it. She is vice-chair of GOAC.

Joining her are Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican; Senator Jack Kolbeck, a Sioux Falls Republican; and Representative Shawn Bordeaux, a Mission Democrat.

Senator Ryan Maher, an Isabel Republican, made the appointments. He chairs GOAC.

Kolbeck called for the subcommittee’s creation. When contacted the next day, he deferred to Karr, who had seconded Kolbeck’s motion.

Karr sent a detailed email at 10:15 p.m. Friday, explaining the reasons.

The subcommittee hasn’t set a date for its first meeting, according to Karr. He said the state Department of Legislative Audit would be part of the work, as would “a third party research body selected by the subcommittee.”

“The DOE has been failing to meet acceptable performance measures. At this time there is no reason to expect different results – the report provided still has the same sub-standard 5 year and 10 year goals,” Karr wrote.

“If we want different results, then there needs to be fundamental change. By bringing in a third party that is an expert in the subject matter, it is the goal to identify root-causes of the low performance and also identify a plan that will result in performance measures that South Dakota can be proud of,” Karr continued.

In a follow-up reply Saturday, Karr added, “The timeline, as well as short range and long range goals will be determined at the first work group meeting.

“At that time, the group will be able to get an idea of the length of time it will take to gather and analyze the information necessary to make recommendations,” Karr continued. “Secretary Jones also indicated that he will be working on a strategic plan – we look forward to receiving that plan so that we can consider the totality of the information during the work group meeting.”

The 2020 legislative session opens January 14.

Kolbeck said the report would be used to inform the House and Senate education committees, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations and GOAC members on department funding — the Legislature sets budgets for all state government agencies — to be “spent more effectively to significantly improve – and I use the word improve – student outcomes to South Dakota.”  

State Education Secretary Ben Jones told the committee Wednesday his plan for the department wasn’t ready yet. Jones said it would be done before legislative session starts and, he hoped, in the next 30 days.

Newly-elected Governor Kristi Noem appointed Jones in January. She’ll deliver her budget recommendations to the Legislature in December.

State law requires GOAC to review state government departments and agencies at least once every three years. The Department of Education was one of seven GOAC looked at this year.

Jones presented to GOAC members some sets of goals he wants larger percentages of students to reach.

Jones said he is looking for what has been proven to work in other states and acknowledged he considered discarding South Dakota’s standards for school performance but decided it would be too disruptive.

“I’ve been diving into what are the things that can move the needle on this in an appreciative way,” Jones said. He said the goals for 2023 and 2028 would be “quite difficult to reach. To get that type of performance in ELA (English language arts) and math, in the 60s and 70 percentiles, across all students, is a herculean effort.”  

Jones, who previously was a dean at Dakota State University in Madison, essentially replaced Melody Schopp. She was state education secretary from 2011 through December 15, 2017, having the support of then-Governor Dennis Daugaard but eventually losing support among many legislators.

To replace Schopp, Daugaard named Don Kirkegaard, who at the time was superintendent of Meade school district and chair of the state Board of Education Standards. The board’s members set rules and standards for public schools that the state department proposes, typically after consulting with teachers and administrators.

Kirkegaard however soon left the state post, to be superintendent of a Wisconsin school district, in July 2018. Daugaard named Mary Stadick Smith, a senior employee at the department, as secretary for the final months of his administration.

Stadick Smith was with Jones Wednesday as he exchanged perspectives during the meeting with several of the lawmakers, who said they weren’t satisfied with what they’ve seen from the state department.

Peterson, for example, said the department’s budget had approximately doubled in less than a decade. “So, that’s a lot more money, for no results. And so I feel like we’ve got to do something drastic,” she said.

Jones replied, “That’s exactly right. And that’s why I want to do something, but I want to do something based on evidence that it works. So if I’d been secretary in 2010, I wouldn’t have advocated to go with Common Core, because there was no proof it worked.”

Jones continued, “So I want to do things that have evidence, have proof, that they work. And that’s the guideline I’ve given my staff and the work group for the opportunity gap, as we look around the country on what works. I hope to take a hard look at Louisiana and Mississippi – and D.C. (District of Columbia), if you can believe it.” 

The state board adopted the Common Core approach in the final months of then-Governor Mike Rounds’ administration in 2010, when Tom Oster was the department secretary. Schopp at the time was deputy secretary. The department developed standards based on Common Core in 2013.

“Did it upset the apple cart then? I think it took five years to put this new system in place,” Jones told the panel. “And through that time, from 2010 to 2015, I’d imagine there were a lot of teachers who said, ‘Why is all this stuff changing? I wasn’t part of that discussion.’ That was around the nation or every state that went to different standards.”

Jones said Common Core raised expectations among some in the education community beyond the Dakota STEP assessments that had been used to measure students’ performances.

“And if we’d have stuck with Dakota STEP, we’d be looking at numbers that were probably in the seventy, eighty percent, and maybe lulled into complacency about who was ready for post-secondary,” Jones said.

South Dakota schools are now using standards developed in the past few years that reflect a looser approach by the federal government that lets each state sets its standards, rather than the nationwide approach under the Bush-era No Child Left Behind that Congress approved.

The change came in 2015 when President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act that Congress approved as the replacement.

Jones said revisions the state board adopted two years ago for South Dakota fit ESSA’s state-oriented approach for English language arts and math. He said they resulted from work by South Dakota teachers and the department.

“There’s a change in the standards driven by South Dakotans,” Jones said.

Contacted for this story, Jones said in an email Thursday: “The Department of Education welcomes more conversations with legislators as we want them to better understand the role of the department.”

He continued, “South Dakota is a local control state, so our department works closely with schools to help implement regulations and shape guidelines for education, but schools are able to independently choose the methods of education that work best for their kids.”

Below is the email from Representative Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls.

Why this happened?
According to South Dakota statute, each state agency is required to complete a performance management review with the Government Operations and Audit Committee on a three-year rotating basis.  Along with six other state agencies, the Department of Education is required to complete this process in 2019. The Department of Education made a preliminary presentation May 23, 2019 during which the Government Operations and Audit Committee provided feedback and additional items it would like to see included in performance measures. The committee also expressed concerns at that time regarding student achievement and whether or not the departments expectations should be set higher.

The Government Operations and Audit Committee is tasked with: 1. Making sure that State Departments and Agencies have performance measures with quantifiable outcomes. 2. The Agency has a strategy  to ensure the resources allocated to it will result in the achieving those outcomes. 3. Identification of the performance measurements that will be used to determine if the agency is achieving desired outcomes. 

When you look at what the outcomes for the performance measures for the Department of Education have been since 2013 – the results raise a lot of concerns. The results from year to year in several categories have not changed significantly and in some categories they have actually decreased. The more troubling part of this is how low the bar has been set. When the DOE presented their draft report in May, I expressed concerns with how low the results have been and the how low the 5-year and 10-year goals have been set. A few examples:

  • The English Proficiency Rate for 3rd graders has been between 48% – 51%, with a 5 year goal of 54%. (2015-2019)
  • The Math Proficiency Rate for 8th graders has been between 39% – 47%, with a 5 year goal of 52%. (2015-2019)
  • College and Career Readiness Rates in the area of Math have decreased from 68% in 2013 to 54% in 2019, and have a 5 year goal of 55%, a 10 year goal of 68%.
  • Since 2015, 20 performance measures have been used. In 2016, the DOE met 4 of those 20; in 2017 the DOE met 1 of those 20, and in 2018 the DOE met 0 of those 20.
  • In 2018 the time frame and performance measurements were re-set from the 6-year targets to the 5-year and 10 year targets. To better illustrate – starting in 2015, the 2021 target for the Math Proficiency Rate for 8th graders was 69.62%; after consistently failing to meet the targets the new format became a 5 year and 10 year goal with much lower target goals (52% and 57% respectively).

During it’s presentation to the Government Operations and Audit Committee on October 30, 2019, the Department of Education did not adequately address the committees concerns regarding student achievement and the significant tax payer dollars expended only to achieve substandard results. As reported by South Dakota News Watch on September 25, 2019, only 54% of the South Dakota students tested showed proficiency in reading and writing; only 47% were proficient in math and about 40% were proficient in science.  From 2015 to budgeted 2020, the Department of Education budget has increased $200 million yet test results have shown no significant improvement. Therefore the committee felt it had an obligation according to state law (SDCL 2-6-2), to tax payers, students and parents to take a deeper look into both the financial and programmatic areas of the Department of Education.  

In 2013, the Secretary of Education presented a plan to the JCA for major reform in education and repeated the message/request in numerous presentations that the JCA and the Legislature hold the Department accountable. I do not believe that the performance of the DOE is acceptable by anyone’s standards and further believe that the DOE should be striving to do better. It is staggering to look at the results of the past six years and the very low standards set for the next 5-10 years. GOAC is tasked to ensure that appropriate performance measures are being used and to make sure there is a strategy to achieve desired outcomes. All of this is to ensure that the Department of Education is being held accountable and using  its resources/funding to achieve the goals it has laid out. The future of our Universities, our Workforce and the State of SD depend on our young people getting an appropriate education.

What you expect in results?
The sub-committee, in conjunction with the Department of Legislative Audit (DLA) and a third-party research body selected by the work group, will oversee an independent review of the Department of Education, including 1.) financial sources and uses of all general, federal and other funds (as requested by the work group and conducted by DLA) and 2.) a thorough analysis of the Department of Education’s adherence to state constitutional mandates, including content, purpose, and goals and results.

The DOE has been failing to meet acceptable performance measures. At this time there is no reason to expect different results – the report provided still has the same sub-standard 5 year and 10 year goals. If we want different results, then there needs to be fundamental change. By bringing in a third party that is an expert in the subject matter, it is the goal to identify root-causes of the low performance and also identify a plan that will result in performance measures that South Dakota can be proud of.

What is the length of the subcommittee’s work?
The “sub-committee”/working group will meet at least once prior to the legislative session to further determine short range and long-range goals and timeline for future meetings. Once this meeting takes place, more details can be provided.

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