Most on S.D. House panel take governor’s side on letting home-school students participate

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — State lawmakers are one step from requiring South Dakota’s public K-12 districts to open school activities to students who are home-schooled or receive other alternative education.

The House of Representatives could debate SB 177 as soon as Tuesday afternoon. Approximately half of districts already allow home-school students who meet local and state-association standards.

In a Capitol meeting room that home-school families had started filling Monday a half-hour before the scheduled 7 a.m. start, the House State Affairs Committee listened to both sides, asked questions and then voted 8-5 to recommend the legislation.

The panel’s majority backed Governor Kristi Noem, whose senior policy advisor, education secretary and office legal counsel all testified for the bill.

Education organizations representing school boards and school administrators opposed to the changes had several witnesses testify remotely. One was Sioux Falls school board president Cynthia Mickelson. Another was Harrisburg superintendent Tim Graf.

Rebecca Reimer, a member of the committee, is the lead sponsor in the House. “As a former 13-year public school board member, I view this bill as essential change for South Dakota,” she said.

The Senate approved it 21-14 on February 17.

The legislation also would eliminate standardized assessments that are now required of alternative-education students in grade 4, 8 and 11. It would simplify the process that parents must follow for notifying districts their alt-ed students won’t be attending classes at the local schools. And it would somewhat beef up truancy requirements for alt-ed students.

“There’s absolutely accountability. And to say otherwise is totally false,” Maggie Seidel, a top aide to the governor, told the committee. She added, “Listen, if we could legislate behavior, our prisons would be empty and our churches would be full.”

Brian Moser, athletic director for the Pierre school district, said school officials can’t check alt-ed students for academic eligibility on activities unless their parents don’t want them participating.

“When it comes to academics, unfortunately, what we heard today was the success stories of the home school student. We didn’t hear the non-successes of the home school students where parents aren’t doing the job that they need to do,” Moser said. “They’re not requiring their children to be in the classroom setting on a daily basis and they’re not reporting those things. And without having those open communications and those open doors, we’re not going to be able to get that information.”

David Anderson tried to remove the requirement that parents notify the state Department of Education when they notify the local school district.

Jon Hansen argued against that change: “By removing the Department of Education, I think you’re going to have sort of a patchwork of forms that are going to be required, and I think that makes it a little more difficult to understand and comply with for parents all across the state.”

Spencer Gosch “whole-heartedly” disagreed with Hansen’s disagreement: “I think if you’re going to apply to a school district, you should probably know what school district you’re applying to.”

Some of the home-school parents in the audience smiled when Anderson’s amendment failed on a voice vote.

Tiffany Sanderson, the governor’s education secretary, said there was a shift of enrollment this school year as families and students responded to COVID-19. She said South Dakota has about 155,000 K-12 students total. Home-school students increased to nearly 7,000 when about 5,500 had been expected, while public-school numbers dropped just 107 to about 136,000. “Non-public schools saw dramatic decreases in their enrollments this year,” she said.

Tim Goodwin said he could support these changes but wouldn’t in the future. “If we pass this, we’re not going to come back and start working on other stuff with it,” he said.

“I think the parents have the best interest of their children at heart,” Kevin Jensen said.

Jamie Smith, a former teacher and coach, opposed the changes. “I also know people that don’t do home schooling right, personally, and they’ve been turned in and nothing happens. And there are, you know, both sides.”

Chris Johnson called for the bill’s endorsement. He said there was a contrast between the positive feelings he sensed from the pro-home school audience and the remote message that opponents delivered.

“I got to tell you, I hear a lot of fear, I heard a lot of mistruths, I heard a lot of unfounded exaggerations, a lot of discussion about what’s happening on the fringes,” Johnson said. “I heard what amounted to me a tongue-lashing to all of you sitting here in this room.”

He added, “(Opponents) would sit before us and they would rather disallow all the home-school kids in South Dakota, many of which are in this room, from fully participating in that well-rounded education that they pay their taxes for, for the sake of a few arguments on the fringe. Is that how we do things in South Dakota?”

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