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Private school voucher program rejected by House Education Committee

A bill that would have used South Dakota taxpayer dollars on private school vouchers was killed in the House Education Committee Wednesday. House Bill 1234 drew strong debate over the role of private schools in education funding.

The bill would have created a taxpayer-funded voucher program to benefit students enrolled in private schools.

Rep. Jon Hansen presented the bill to committee. He said the bill creates more opportunities for families to explore schooling options.

“School choice allows for parents to choose the best education option that works for their, whether that’s a public school, a nonpublic school, or a homeschool," Hansen said. "I think we should allow for parents to decide for themselves which education option works better. The focus of education is on the student, so we should fund the student, and not necessarily systems.”

That argument was not accepted by everyone in the room. Wade Pogany with the Associated School Boards of South Dakota questioned allocating funding to private schools while the state’s public schools tread water.

“I’ve heard many of you say ‘we don’t have capacity to add new programs given what we have. Sure, we have a windfall now, but we won’t tomorrow.’ So, now you’re adding a $46-million-dollar program? Folks, we have 176 teaching positions open that we can’t fill," Pogany said. "We have 50th in the ranking teachers’ salaries in the nation. We’ve added 12,000 new kids to public schools in the past ten years. We’re just trying to keep up.”

Pogany also questioned accountability of private schools, the equity of this bill for students in rural and remote areas, and a pick-and-choose taxing mentality.

Another opponent, Diana Miller of the Large School Group, said parents already have a choice in education.

“You do have school choice, so this throwing the word ‘freedom’ – every South Dakota taxpayer has freedom to choose what he or she wishes for their children," Miller said. "The question is not freedom. The question is who pays, lets be real about this.”

On an 11-4 vote, the bill was moved to the 41st legislative day, killing it for the session.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture