Could South Dakota become the latest state to offer private school choice?

Travis Pillow

Right now, 16 U.S. states have tax credit scholarship programs. South Dakota could soon be the 17th.

The state Legislature this week approved a bill that would give insurance companies 80 percent tax credits if they donated money to scholarship funds, which could help low-income and working class students attend private schools.

The school choice program would start small, with just $2 million in tax credits available. If donations maxed out, that would yeild $2.5 million in scholarships, or enough to pay private-school tuition for about 1,000 students. (There are fewer than 150,000 total K-12 students in South Dakota.)

According to an analysis by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the average tuition at Catholic Schools in Souix Falls is less than $2,500. That means a relatively small amount of scholarship money could serve more students than it would in other states. It also means the program could yield big savings for public schools.

A legislative fiscal analysis finds that SB 159, if approved by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, could save taxpayers more than $1.7 million, assuming the maximum number of students receive scholarships.

Yet the Argus Leader reports the proposal has been dogged by some of the typical public-school funding rhetoric that dogs new private school choice programs.

Rep. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, said now that the state plans to spend tens of millions of dollars more a year on public school teacher pay, lawmakers should support legislation that provides for private schools, too.

“You should appreciate that we should all be in this together,” Schoenbeck said. “I’d ask you to support educating all children in South Dakota.”

Opponents on the floor said the measure could be unconstitutional and would benefit special interests rather than South Dakota citizens. They also said it could create a “black mark” on the progress made in public education funding.

Rep. Karen Soli, D-Sioux Falls, said the bill would divert state tax funds, which would violate the state’s constitution. She said lawmakers should continue to focus on funding South Dakota public schools.

“Let’s not put an unconstitutional black mark on what promises to be a great legislative year for education here in South Dakota,” Soli said.

The newspaper reports that it’s not yet clear what stance Daugaard will take on the bill.

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