South Dakota lawmakers want more influence in K-12 education policies

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — More details surfaced Monday about how some state lawmakers hope to change the direction of public schools in South Dakota.

Senator Ryan Maher told the Legislature’s Executive Board that the Government Operations and Audit Committee he chairs has named a subgroup to work with the state Department of Education.

The Isabel Republican said they’re focused on students’ performances on the department’s standardized assessments.

Senator Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican, said the department perhaps had “unwise” indicators in the past but stressed that only teachers and students have control.

Bolin, a former teacher and school administrator, said many students don’t see a direct relationship between the standardized testing and their admission to college or technical school.

“I want to make sure that is on the record,” Bolin said. He said it’s not-possible for the department to control the scores and the tests have “limited value.”

Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert of Mission said there has been too much emphasis on just the tests and there should be a broader look at what schools are doing.

Maher said the Legislature as a body needs to change its emphasis. Maher said the department didn’t follow through on GOAC’s directives in the spring and the fall to develop new performance indicators.

“The blame lies on the department,” Maher said. “We gave them all summer and they said no.”

Bolin said there’s been a leadership change at the department. Governor Kristi Noem this year appointed as secretary Ben Jones, a former Dakota State University dean. Jones told the panel October 30 that his plan has taken longer to come together than he expected it would and he hoped to have it done within 30 days.

The previous governor, Dennis Daugaard, had Melody Schopp serve as secretary from 2011 into 2017, followed by a former K-12 superintendent, Don Kirkegard, and an interim secretary, Mary Stadick Smith. Schopp followed through on a 2010 decision by the state Board of Education during the final months of Governor Mike Rounds’ administration to switch from the Dakota STEP assessments.

Republican Representative Steven Haugaard of Sioux Falls, the House speaker, said he hopes there’s a change in vision under Jones.

Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican who is GOAC’s vice chair, said the Education Department is spending “a lot of money” — more than $12 million this budget year — on various assessments and has also hired a consultant to help look at the effectiveness.

House Republican leader Lee Qualm of Platte said superintendents in his south-central region don’t think the Smarter Balanced assessments that the department now uses is “fair.”

Senator Jim White, a Huron Republican, said about 60 percent of his local district’s enrollment are ‘New American’ children from other nations.

Haugaard said the comments reflect the need for the Legislature to become more involved in K-12 education.

Peterson said she was taking notes on what the Executive Board wants and said the state Department of Legislative Audit will assist in the financial review.

Peterson said the subcommittee, which she heads, will look at the potential for contracting with a vendor to review the department’s scope. She said there also needs to be recognition of Native American students, who generally perform more poorly on the assessments than other students.

Peterson said the subcommittee wants to work more closely with the House and the Senate education committees. Peterson said the committees should be more “pro-active” in setting direction rather than reacting to legislation.

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