Charter Schools Could Be Coming to South Dakota

Published January 23, 2010

A proposal to add South Dakota to the ranks of states allowing charter schools experienced a setback in late January when its sponsor said it needed another year of study.

Introduced by State Education Secretary Tom Oster, Senate Bill 63 would empower South Dakota’s local school boards to authorize public charter schools in their districts. Charters are independent, publicly funded schools of choice that often provide alternative programs not available in traditional public schools.

But when individual school districts asked for permission to set up their own charter schools, Oster altered his own bill to cap the number and asked the state Senate for time to set up a study group before revisiting the idea next session.

“I should have known better,” he told the Senate Education Committee. “Charter schools in South Dakota is a huge leap.”

Little Demand

Oster acknowledges demand for charters has not been widespread in South Dakota because academic performance has been strong in the state’s traditional public schools. Of the state’s 152 school districts, Oster believes the only real initial interest in charter authorizing would be in Sioux Falls (20,870 students) and Rapid City (13,199 students). Approximately 140 districts are small enough to be considered “quasi-charter schools” in their own right, he notes.

“Our [public school] students do very well nationally,” Oster said. “This would be more of an opportunity for innovation than to correct a wrong.”

Native Needs

Achieving far below their white peers, however, nearly two-thirds of the state’s Native American students drop out before completing high school. The minority group represents about 12 percent of the state’s 123,000 public school students.

State Rep. Kevin Killer (D-Pine Ridge) sees charter schools as an important means of improving the prospects of Native American youth, a fast-growing segment of the population in South Dakota.

“We need to see how we can develop that into a workforce so they can contribute back to the state,” said Killer.

In February 2009, Killer sponsored House Bill 1295 to introduce charter schools to South Dakota. The bill was defeated in committee on a 10-5 vote.

“I think it was a learning process for my colleagues in the legislature,” Killer said.

Racing Motivation

Though some of the technical aspects are different, this year’s SB 63 would accomplish the same purposes Killer sought with HB 1295. Oster says the state’s application for Race to the Top grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education includes a proposal for a residential charter school that would serve Native Americans from grades 9 to 14, partnering with institutions of higher education to offer an underserved student population greater access to community college degrees.

The Race to the Top process has renewed South Dakota’s interest in allowing charter schools. The U.S. Department of Education has stressed a charter-friendly atmosphere as a requirement to collect a portion of the grant.

“The feds are certainly looking for states that have enabling legislation,” said Oster. “We’ve tried to let the feds and our Congressional delegation know that one size does not fit all.”

Expanding Opportunities

Oster warns there is little support in the state for extending charter school authorizing power beyond district boards of education.

“[SB 63] wouldn’t even get out of the gate if it didn’t allow the local school board to say yea or nay,” Oster said. “Even with that provision, it will be very controversial, and it faces a very big uphill battle.”

South Dakota’s veto deadline for 2010 legislation to be approved is March 29. SB 63 would have had to clear committee hearings and floor votes in both houses before it could reach Gov. Mike Rounds’ (R) desk for signature.

Killer believes adopting the bill would be a victory for some underprivileged South Dakota communities.

“It’s just going to provide more opportunities,” he said. “It’s going to provide kids more resources and a chance to be more competitive.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.