A new bill has been pitched to South Dakota voters which could affect all teachers throughout the state, and has attracted the attention of both veteran educators and education majors alike.
If voters pass Referred Law 16 on Nov. 6, a statewide evaluation system would take effect. This bill also includes clauses that would provide scholarships and bonuses to teachers, and it would remove the state mandate for continuing contracts, a system similar to tenure.
“Every part of this is rooted in local control,” state Sen. Mark Johnston said. “We want to put money in teachers’ hands.”
Johnston, a strong advocate of the proposal, explained the bill would bring teachers into critical need areas thanks to a scholarship program. The bill would also reward the best teachers with bonuses. The planned amount is $5,000 for the top 20 percent of teachers, but districts also have the option of creating a local plan or opting out of the bonuses all together.
Sandy Arseneault, president of the South Dakota Education Association (SDEA), does not support the bill. She is worried it would take away local control.
Arseneault also objects to the proposal because she believes that no teachers were consulted, there is no money currently attached to the bill, and it would do nothing to improve student achievement.
Arseneault worries these changes may lead several schools to close down.
“We should be investing in public schools,” Arseneault said. “They are the cornerstone of our democracy. If you live in the U.S., you should be afforded a high quality education.”
Students preparing to become teachers are also, understandably, following this election.
Carrie Hemeyer, an elementary and special education major at Augustana College, said she supports Referred Law 16 and worked with its campaign throughout the summer.
“I support this bill because it puts good teachers in classrooms,” Hemeyer said. “By getting rid of tenure, adding more financial support to teachers, adding a sense of accountability for teachers and investing in future teachers’ education, this bill is exactly what the state of South Dakota needs right now.”
Hemeyer will graduate next year. She said she would be able to apply for a scholarship from the state if she chooses to stay in South Dakota. This would help pay off some of her student loans. She also approves of the proposed accountability standards.
“Every job has an evaluation system, and I think it is something that many schools are missing,” Hemeyer said. “I like to have evaluation systems because they will help make me a better teacher.”
If Referred Law 16 does not pass, Hemeyer said the education system would continue having problems like flattened test lines, a high shortage of math and science teachers, average education for students and teachers who struggle to support their families.
Another Augustana student, Alyssa Persson, does not support the bill. She said it would send the wrong message about education.
“While it would be ideal to have improvement in the areas of math and science, they are not the only subjects that are important for students to learn,” Persson, who plans on becoming a history teacher, said.
“I also think that putting that much weight on test scores is ridiculous because that is only one way in which learning is demonstrated by students, and sometimes it is not the best way,” Persson added. “This law would put a lot of pressure on teachers and students, and it could cause them to focus on performance rather than on the value of learning in and of itself.”
Persson said she believes some subjects – like history – are sometimes overlooked, and this bill could make it more difficult for her and other educators to find jobs if schools are focusing their energy on math and science.
Persson also objects to the possibility of math and science teachers receiving more pay. “To me, that is saying that math and science are valued above other subjects which I think is wrong.”
She also does not approve of the evaluation system. Being focused on testing and performance, Persson said, would affect her teaching style and distract from her true interest: the students.
According to Persson, the evaluation system could also create a strained competition between teachers and schools throughout the state. “Learning should be about sharing ideas and cooperation, not about competition and trying to one up each other. Overall, I think Referred Law 16 would do the opposite of what should be done with our state’s education system.”
Both Hemeyer’s and Persson’s future as educators will be affected by the outcome of the election this November. They have shared their thoughts; it is in the voters’ hands, now.