‘Opportunity Scholarship Fairness’ Bill Sails Forward With New Governor’s Support

KELO South Dakota capitol Pierre legislature

A concept that South Dakota lawmakers embraced last year is moving forward even faster now that Governor Kristi Noem is in office.

A House panel unanimously endorsed the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship Fairness measure Monday from Representative Sue Peterson.

House Bill 1040 would make home-schooled students eligible for the scholarship with an ACT score of 24.

Currently the program’s rules require a 28 ACT from home-schooled students and a 24 from public- or private-school students.

The 70-member House of Representatives could take up the measure as early as Tuesday afternoon. If it wins there, the bill would move next to the Senate.

Last year, Governor Dennis Daugaard used his veto power to block a similar measure from becoming South Dakota law.

The scholarship pays partially for tuition for up to eight consecutive fall and spring semesters toward an undergraduate or equivalent degree at a public or private college, university or technical school in South Dakota.

The Opportunity amounts are $1,300 for each of the first three years and $2,600 for the fourth year of attendance.

For the current school year, an in-state undergraduate student taking 30 credit hours at one of South Dakota’s six public universities is paying about $8,870 for tuition and the mandatory general-activity fee. Housing and meals add to that cost.

Daugaard said in his veto letter that the legislation would hold home-schooled students to a lower standard than students in public or private schools.

Wrote Daugaard: “Under Senate Bill 94, classes completed by home-schooled students would not be subject to the same requirements because there is no accreditation requirement for home-school courses.”

He continued, “To receive an Opportunity Scholarship, a student would only need to achieve the lower ACT score and produce a transcript of completed coursework issued by the parent or guardian. No one would have the ability to review course materials for these home-school classes as is the case for accredited schools.”

Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican, said times have changed now that South Dakota voters elected Kristi Noem as governor.

The former congresswoman took office January 5 after two months of transition work with Daugaard, who couldn’t seek election to a third consecutive term as governor. Both are Republicans.

The Senate approved last year’s legislation 25-6. The House of Representatives was nearly unanimous with its support 64-1.

“Surprisingly the bill was vetoed by the governor. However, this year, we begin a new chapter with a new governor, and as you heard last week, in Governor Noem’s State of the State address, she’s wholeheartedly supporting this legislation,” Peterson told House Education Committee members Monday.

Testifying next was Tony Venhuizen. He was chief of staff for Governor Daugaard but now is a senior adviser to Governor Noem through at least March.

“Governor Noem stated her support for this concept in the State of the State address last week. She is an advocate for home schooling as an option for South Dakota families, and she believes that the Opportunity scholarship should be available on equal terms to other students,” Venhuizen said.

The current state budget, which was separately passed by the Legislature, already contained funding to handle some additional scholarships for home-schooled students. Peterson said the money would cover five to seven students.

Julie Christian of Sioux Falls, the mother of several home-schooled students, testified there are 271 home-school seniors this year and nearly 5,000 in the K-12 grades. She said the enrollment if combined in one community would make them South Dakota’s third-largest school district.

No one testified Monday against Peterson’s legislation.

Last year, opposition came from the state Department of Education that oversees K-12 education and the state Board of Regents, whose members govern the public universities and supervise administration of the scholarship program. The two agencies didn’t send anyone forward to speak Monday.

One new twist in Peterson’s bill is a retroactive provision. It would allow home-schooled students in the 24 through 27 ACT range who would have been covered last fall and this spring to receive the Opportunity scholarship for their remaining semesters of eligibility.

Representative Tom Brunner called for the House committee to support the proposal. “It’s good to have the governor’s office show and speak on the bill,” the Nisland Republican said.

Representative Ray Ring said he voted for it last year and he backed it again Monday during the panel’s 14-0 vote.

But the Vermillion Democrat said school superintendents from his legislative district cautioned that some parents abuse the home-school approach by letting students essentially become truants.

“People who are coming up and asking for this, I’m not concerned about,” Ring said.

Representative Fred Deutsch said that as a school board member, he agreed with Ring’s point. The Florence Republican asked parents in the committee hearing room to help address the concern about students using home school to skip regular classes.

“They are very few, but they are very real,” Deutsch said.

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