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Trial About to Begin in South Dakota

The trial in the South Dakota adequacy lawsuit, South Dakota Coalition of Schools v. State, is scheduled to begin on September 2. Plaintiffs will argue that the State of South Dakota is failing to ensure adequate public education opportunities, as guaranteed in Article VIII of the State Constitution which requires the state to provide a “uniform system of free and public schools” and “taxation to support [a] school system.” Current legislative policy also provides that, “school districts exist for the purpose of operating a school or schools to provide the people of each local community adequate opportunity to avail themselves of a free public education,” and that “it is essential for all children and youth in the state to have access to an adequate educational program in a public school.”

Having the lowest, average teacher salary in the nation ($34,709), South Dakota ranks 41 out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia) in per pupil spending ($7,651/pupil/year). The plaintiffs in South Dakota Coalition of Schools v. State will argue that the State is failing to uphold its constitutional and legislative responsibilities to maintain “an adequate education program.”

Depositions taken from school superintendents and State School Board members illustrate the shortcomings of the first state educational finance system. Many school district representatives contend that significantly more funding is necessary to enable their schools to meet the mandated state and federal standards outlined by No Child Left Behind. When asked about the conditions and educational opportunities available at Florence School District, a property poor district in northeastern South Dakota, Don Kirkegaard, a member of the state Board of Education, admitted that, “As a parent, I would not have my children go to school there [in Florence]…I just don’t think they’re providing a program that enhances educational opportunities.”

Some of the main issues that will be addressed in the September trial proceedings are large class sizes, reduced course offerings, limited to no options for gifted and special education students, poor support for staff, faculty, and administrators, sub par facilities, and minimal access to general school supplies in the public schools.

Prekindgarten education is also expected to be a hotly contested issue at this trial. Currently, pre-K programs are not required by the state of South Dakota. Many school districts in the state have instituted early childhood education programs, but funding for such programs is entirely derived from local district funding. This means that a local decision to support pre-school generally reduces the funding available for K-12 programs.

Stanford professor, Erik Hanushek is expected to testify for the defendants. He will challenge the broad-based academic and public support for pre-K education. Hanushek was quoted after giving a deposition for this case, as saying that, “There are some good but very small-scale studies showing positive effects of preschool….Most of the positive effects, however, are not educational improvements but reductions in crime and incarceration.” Additionally, he claims that, “research surrounding early childhood or preschool programs is insufficient to support proposed public policy changes.”

Plaintiffs are expected to call Dr. Charles Bruner to counter Hanushek’s statements. Bruner is the Executive Director of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines, Iowa. He has written extensively on the subject of early childhood education and needs. He is likely to testify regarding research supporting the notion that low-income and disadvantaged children significantly benefit from preschool education, that child development is based on stimulation, especially the stimulation that is acquired when a child is three and four years old, and that the long-term economic benefits of preschool education dramatically exceed the cost of its programs.

Last week, Judge Lori Wilbur, who will be conducting the trial, ruled that school districts cannot contribute funds to aid the plaintiffs in this case. The legal rationale behind this ruling is that “a creature cannot sue its creator.” School districts in other states, like New York and Ohio, have been permitted to contribute to plaintiffs’ costs in adequacy cases. In New York, for example, even though, as in South Dakota, the community school boards were dismissed as plaintiffs because they were “created by the state,” they nevertheless remained members of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the plaintiff organization, and paid membership dues to support the case. Despite this financial setback, the South Dakota case will continue as planned. In a separate ruling this week, the judge decided that legislators would be permitted to testify against the constitutionality of the state’s current education provisions.