As some Republican politicians have been clamoring for schools to reopen this fall, we have noticed some disturbing trends. Unsubstantiated rhetoric coming from Washington about public school teachers and silence or agreement from local Republicans has become disturbingly commonplace. We have seen plans to expedite the return to the classroom based on little to no science and a complete lack of guidance from our governor. “Back to Normal” really doesn’t work during a pandemic. As if that isn’t enough, for the fourth year in a row, the governor and the Republican legislature will have failed to meet the minimum education funding laws guaranteed by the 2016 Blue Ribbon Task Force, despite a $19 million budget surplus.
For much of his time in office, the president and his administration have been insulting our nation’s educators. At his unhinged rant at Mount Rushmore on July 3 this year, he said, “our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” We all know teachers in our communities. South Dakotans, I implore you to ask yourself, or better yet, email or call a teacher in your district about this “indoctrination” of which he speaks. Our public educators are held to federal and state standards. What our president and governor suggest is hypocritical as they set the standards.
The president is also attempting to tie federal funding to schools reopening in person this fall, with little to no resistance from South Dakota Republicans. As the response around COVID-19 evolves based on scientific discoveries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tried to put a plan in place to help give scientific-based guidance, but he has basically ignored them. And, with cheers from the right and inaction from our own governor’s mansion. We believe there should be a federal plan for the pandemic response and sending children and teachers back to school safely. At the very least, there should be a plan based on the State Department of Health experts’ advice.
Ignoring guidance from health experts, combined with Republicans’ long history of underfunding education will cause deeper challenges in South Dakota schools. For nearly 30 years, our state held the unenviable title of the lowest-paid teachers in the nation. The 2016 law created a new half penny sales tax to improve funding to public schools and teacher salaries so we would no longer be last in the nation. It worked the first year under Gov. Daugaard, and could have become a New Normal for our educational system. An Argus Leader investigation in June 2019 found that to be the only year that the South Dakota legislature actually appropriated the minimum required by law. The Republican-led legislature has broken the law three years out of four. This is why two-party checks and balances is so important.
Recently, public education in South Dakota has also received $68 million in CARES Act money according to the Rapid City Journal (May 26, 2020) and today it was announced by the governor that $47 million (Argus Leader — July 28, 2020) would be going to public education.
We demand full transparency as to where those funds are disbursed. All South Dakotans should demand it. Teachers and their students, who it seems are about to be forced to go to the front lines of the pandemic with an on-time school start during a pandemic; they deserve to know.
This fall is going to be a challenging time for our great teachers who always rank high in the nation in the value of education they provide despite ongoing scrutiny and underfunding. The current governor is “asking” local schools and districts to “make it work,” staying consistent with her accountability-free lack of leadership. Requiring masks and social distancing should have been the minimum model required from both the governor’s and State Health Department’s office. We need true leadership, a new plan for education, and we need it now.