Research & Commentary: South Dakota School Funding

Published September 20, 2011

In 2006, two-thirds of South Dakota’s public school districts sued the state for more money, claiming the legislature didn’t provide enough for the system to ensure all South Dakota students receive a “free and quality education.” In September 2011 the state supreme court rejected the suit, ruling courts had no right to compel the legislature to spend and the districts had failed to prove higher spending results in better education outcomes for students.

The petitioning districts complained the state’s 3 percent per year automatic school funding increase in some cases barely compensated for inflation, and they pointed to other states that spend more money on students. South Dakota school districts have been implementing budget and program cuts in recent years as their state, like most others, has lost tax revenue during the current recession.

The state’s defense focused on a comparison of high-performing South Dakota school districts that spent much less than comparable low-performing districts as proof that more money does not equal a better education. The state also argued that taxpayers, through the state legislature, are the only ones who can decide how much the state ought to spend on education, since they are the ones paying for and receiving the services.

The following documents offer more information about school funding in South Dakota.

SD Supreme Court Upholds School Funding System
The South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s funding system in a lawsuit brought by two-thirds of the state’s school districts arguing they lacked the money to provide students an adequate education, reports the Rapid City Journal. The court ruled it had “reasonable doubt” against labeling the current system unconstitutional, despite dire financial need in some districts, since research shows little connection between higher spending and student achievement. It upheld a lower state court’s ruling that added state courts do not have the authority to force the legislature to spend money.

Schools’ Funding Complaint Rejected
School districts suing South Dakota failed to prove that more money would produce better test scores and high school graduation rates, the Sioux Falls-Argus Leader reports of the state supreme court’s decision in September 2011. The justices also found the state constitution entitles all children to a “free, adequate and quality public education,” giving ground to the districts to consider bringing another, similar lawsuit in the future. The districts’ lawyer said this statement, and that the state legislature cut education funding 6.6 percent in 2011, opens the possibility of poorer districts suing again for more “equitable” funding.

Feeling the Pinch
After a 6.6 percent cut to state school funding for 2011–2012, South Dakota school districts have begun to cut sports programs, including axing 164 coaching positions, eliminating varsity sports in 11 of the state’s 152 districts, and raising sports venue ticket prices, reports the Sioux Falls-Argus Leader. Some schools are allowing middle-schoolers whose sports programs were cut to “petition up” to join high school teams, and many have begun raising private funds to keep certain sports teams playing. District administrators say they fear losing a child to another public school through the state’s open enrollment policy if the district cuts a program that child participates in.

Some South Dakota Schools Cut Costs By Cutting a Day
Time magazine reports one-fourth of public-school students in South Dakota will no longer take classes on Fridays as districts cut school to four days a week in an effort to balance their budgets. To help make up lost instructional time, schools are lengthening the remaining school days and cutting break times, such as lunch periods.

State Spends $1.7 million-$2.2 million Defending School Funding System
The state of South Dakota spent up to $2.2 million over six years defending how it funds its public schools, notes the Aberdeen News. Had the state used private lawyers in its defense, said the South Dakota attorney general, the case would easily have cost at least another $385,000.

SD Supreme Court Shoots Down School Funding Lawsuit
Commenting on the South Dakota Supreme Court’s decision confirming the state’s school funding, Bob Ellis of the Dakota Voice notes half of South Dakota’s public school staff are administrators, not teachers, and the state’s comparatively low per-pupil education spending still places it in the “upper tier for academic results.” Ellis suggests school administrators stop wasting taxpayer dollars with lawsuits and says South Dakotans should start focusing on their parenting to help kids get a better education.

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If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].