South Dakota Lawsuit Highlights Rural Issues

Last Updated: October 10, 2008

This article appeared in the October 2008 Rural Policy Matters

South Dakota’s school funding case, which opened last month, has focused mainly on the circumstances of rural districts and their severe underfunding.

School leaders from several rural districts Faith, Doland, Bon Homme, Willow Lake and Florence districts, along with leaders from Rapid City, delivered compelling testimony about shortfalls in facility funding and an inability to recruit and retain high quality teachers. For example, students in the Faith district must attend classes in trailers after their school building was condemned last year.

Testimony on teacher quality and salary levels reveals some of the dilemmas in the case. South Dakota’s teachers earn the lowest average salaries in the nation and many are reported to leave the state for higher salaries elsewhere. One witness testified that cut scores on teacher certification tests are lower in South Dakota than surrounding states in an effort to increase the supply of teachers. But the state countered that tests don’t necessarily judge the competency or knowledge of a teacher and that South Dakota’s students are doing better, on average, than students in most states.

A group of students and their parents are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit after the judge in the case ruled that it was illegal for school districts, or a coalition of districts, to fund a lawsuit with public money. The districts are appealing that ruling to the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, the lawsuit is still supported in principle by over 100 districts.

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

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