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South Dakota Republicans kill school choice bill

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(The Center Square) – The South Dakota Education Committee voted to move a bill establishing educational “empowerment” accounts to the 41st day, which kills the bill for the 2024 legislative session.

Rep. John Sjaarda’s bill would give students not enrolled in a school district or receiving alternative instruction more than $7,000 for education fees. The Valley Springs representative pointed to recent school choice accounts in Iowa and Arizona as a “standard for school choice.”

The bill would not only give students a choice, but it could also improve the state’s schools, Sjaarda said.

“When a school knows that they are the only choice for a child to go to, it lessens the desire for that school to try their hardest to list to what the parents want, to do what is absolutely necessarily best for the child,” Sjaarda said. “This is how competition works.”

The bill was opposed by several South Dakota education groups that questioned the cost and accountability.

“The fiscal impact of this bill could cause the State to incur general fund expenses of $109,159,906+ for fiscal year 2025,” the bill’s fiscal note said. “This amount could be more depending on the number of students switching from public to private school and/or disenrolling from alternative instruction (home school) and requesting an educational account provided in this bill. The number of students potentially changing enrollment was not factored into the fiscal impact of this bill.”

The estimate could be higher, according to the fiscal note.

“This bill erodes public oversight,” said Douglas Wermedal, executive director of Associated School Boards of South Dakota, a nonprofit that represents more than 850 school board members. “There is no public oversight for how public tax dollars that are used for private schools.”

Reps. Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, and Bethany Soye, R-Sioux Falls, voted not to move the bill to the 41st day. The South Dakota legislative session is 35 days in even years.

A survey commissioned by South Dakota Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota in late 2023 showed that 48.8% of parents surveyed support school choice. Of the 500 parents polled by phone, 45.6% opposed them and 5.6% were undecided.

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