Commentary

Lawmakers have themselves to blame for SD’s embarrassing teacher pay

July 30, 2023 12:00 pm
Members of the state House of Representatives stand and applaud after a $104 million tax cut bill passed with unanimous support on March 9, 2023, at the Capitol in Pierre. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Members of the state House of Representatives stand and applaud after a $104 million tax cut bill passed with unanimous support on March 9, 2023, at the Capitol in Pierre. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Call it deja vu gone bad. A recent meeting of the state’s Teacher Compensation Review Board had to once again deal with the fact that teachers’ salaries in South Dakota are a national embarrassment.

At the board meeting, figures were used from the National Education Association which listed the average teacher pay in South Dakota as $50,592, just ahead of Mississippi at $47,902 and West Virginia at $50,315. According to the NEA, the average teacher pay in the United States is $66,745.

South Dakota’s teacher pay was ranked 50th out of 51 (don’t forget the District of Columbia) in 2016 when the Legislature increased the state sales tax by a half percent with the majority of the funds earmarked to increase teacher pay. Designed to raise $107.4 million, Gov. Dennis Daugaard originally proposed using the tax increase to send $67 million to schools.

(Knowing he had to placate the anti-tax crowd in Pierre, Daugaard proposed using the other $40 million for property tax relief. At least one lawmaker went on the record questioning if it made sense to raise one tax so that another could be cut.)

When the dust settled at the Capitol, 63% of the tax increase was designated for public schools, 34% went to property tax relief and 3% went to raise instructor pay at the state’s four public technical institutes. Of the money that went to public schools, 85% had to be used to increase teacher salaries. Schools that failed to properly use the money for raises for teachers were in danger of losing the new funding.

Once again the Legislature has to figure out how to get South Dakota teacher pay out of the cellar, and lawmakers have only themselves to blame for this predicament.

At the recent meeting, the board’s chairman, Sen. Jim Bolin, a Republican from Canton, likened teacher pay to a 2-mile race at a track meet. According to a KELO story, the former teacher acknowledged that South Dakota isn’t winning the race, “But we are not being lapped by other runners.”

No, the state isn’t being lapped. It is, however, in danger of dropping into the sub-basement if Mississippi or West Virginia happens to strike oil.

The 2016 sales tax increase bumped the average teacher salary in South Dakota only as high as 47th in the national rankings. Moving up in the rankings didn’t mean the work was done. Teacher salary increases had to be maintained and obviously that has failed to happen.

Once again the Legislature has to figure out how to get South Dakota teacher pay out of the cellar, and lawmakers have only themselves to blame for this predicament. The 2016 law based future funding for teachers’ salaries on the Consumer Price Index, but in subsequent years lawmakers didn’t find the funds to fulfill that obligation. In the years they had money, they didn’t backfill their obligation to raise teachers’ salaries. All the while our lawmakers were ignoring teacher pay, other states were investing in education, dropping South Dakota down in the salary rankings.

Awash in excess revenue this year, lawmakers cut the very sales tax that funded the original bump in teacher pay. Unable to help themselves, lawmakers cut the 4.5% state sales tax to 4.2%. While the cut doesn’t make much of a dent in everyday purchases, it will account for an estimated $104 million less in state revenue.

Lawmakers, convinced that revenue increases could sustain a $104 million tax cut, should have been more circumspect about the state of education and put some of that money into funding an increase in teacher salaries.

Now, tasked with finding more for teacher pay while cutting $104 million in state revenue, lawmakers face the prospect of an initiative on the next ballot that calls for elimination of the state sales tax on groceries. If that’s as popular with voters as previous polls have shown it to be, lawmakers will have to deal with another $124 million in missing state revenue.

There’s more to raising teacher pay than avoiding a national embarrassment. A reasonable wage, at least competitive with surrounding states, helps school districts retain teachers and recruit new ones. While the argument is centered on teacher pay, this debate is really about students and how to get them the best education possible. That will only get harder each year that South Dakota is mired in the salary basement.

 

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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.

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