Gov. Dennis Daugaard proposed sweeping reforms Tuesday to the state's K-12 education system, including annual $5,000 bonuses for the state's best teachers, more bonuses for math and science teachers and an end to the venerable institution of teacher tenure.
In his State of the State speech in Pierre, Daugaard unveiled a multi-point plan aimed at reversing what the governor called stagnation in the state's educational achievement.
"We are simply putting more money into the same system, and we are not getting significantly better results," Daugaard said in the speech.
The governor unveiled a plan that he said would incentivize the state's best teachers while making it easier to fire the worst.
"My proposals are aimed at recognizing and rewarding those excellent teachers who are able to effectively teach their students," Daugaard said.
Daugaard's education plan builds on several initiatives already underway - new teaching standards, a shift in the state's testing program to emphasize improvement rather than static benchmarks and a teacher evaluation system.
Based on the results of those teacher evaluations, Daugaard is proposing to give the top 20 percent of teachers at every school district a $5,000 bonus every year.
"We're paying our teachers right now as if they were all average. Why shouldn't they then perform average?" Daugaard said. "We need to reward our teachers who are excellent and recognize them."
That bonus plan, the governor said, will cost $10 million per year in state funds. It would begin in the 2014-2015 school year if approved by the Legislature.
Rapid City Area Schools superintendent Tim Mitchell said he has mixed feelings about the merit pay proposal.
"What the governor is trying to do, I am very supportive of, in that the only way we can increase the ability for our systems across the state to increase student achievement is to build the capacity of the people within it," Mitchell said.
But he worries that the merit pay might have unintended consequences.
"One of the things that's always a concern is if it fosters a competitive environment when we're trying to develop a collaborative environment because that's what research says is good for kids," Mitchell said.
Mitchell also said the program could stigmatize the teachers who are good but not in the top 20 percent.
Democratic leaders harshly criticized the merit pay proposal.
"Merit pay sounds good on the surface, but it doesn't work in the classrooms," said Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, the House Minority Leader. "It will do more damage than good. It's politically popular to talk about it, but policy-wise, it's a disaster."
But many Republicans like the sound of merit pay.
"I'm excited about that," said Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City, the House Majority Leader. "I really like the idea of bonuses for excellence."
Also getting bonuses under Daugaard's plan would be math and science teachers - whether or not they were in the top 20 percent.
The governor said the state suffers a shortage of math and science teachers, the result of too few people entering the profession and too many leaving teaching for opportunities in industry.
His $3,500 annual bonus for every math and science teacher would start in the 2013-2014 school year and would cost $5 million per year, the governor said.
Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, and a retired teacher who is vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she definitely sees the shortage of math and science teachers and believes the subsidy would address that.
"But we also have other teachers that are doing a lot of hard work," Sly said. "For example, teachers that teach reading. If students can't read, they aren't going to do well in science."
Sly said she will consider the proposal and wants to hear from constituents.
Teachers would be eligible for both bonuses. A math or science teacher who also ranked in the top 20 percent in their district could get a combined $8,500 - or almost a quarter of the average South Dakota teacher salary of around $35,000 per year.
But Daugaard said his vision for education includes more than just rewarding the best teachers.
"Even as we reward our best teachers, we need to give administrators fair and objective tools to measure performance, to deal with the few teachers who just aren't able to perform in their jobs," he said in his speech.
Under Daugaard's plan, no new teachers would be given tenure after the end of the current school year this summer.
Teachers who have tenure would keep it.
Tenure is the system whereby experienced teachers have their annual contracts automatically extended each year barring major misconduct.
Daugaard described tenure as a thing of the past.
"We are moving away from a system that relies on tenure and into a system that is based on rigorous, evidence-based evaluation," Daugaard said.
The governor also plans another change to tenure that he didn't talk about in the State of the State speech, his senior aide Tony Venhuizen said.
Currently, tenured teachers can be terminated for specific reasons - breach of contract, incompetency, "gross immorality," unprofessional conduct, insubordination, neglect of duty, violating school policies and "poor performance" - the last of which is left up to school districts.
Daugaard wants to make poor performance more specific. His plan would give schools just cause to dismiss tenured teachers if their annual performance evaluations put them in the worst category - "unsatisfactory" - for two consecutive years.
The South Dakota Education Association, the statewide teachers group, criticized Daugaard's proposals.
"This punitive approach will certainly undermine the spirit of collaboration in our school," SDEA president Sandy Arseneault said in a statement.
Arseneault called Daugaard's plan a "one-size-fits-all" proposal that "continues to rely heavily on high-stakes testing."
Hunhoff struck a similar note.
"Nobody's calling for it, other than extremist politicians," Hunhoff said about abolishing tenure for those who don't have it. "It's a solution looking for a problem, and there is no problem in South Dakota."
Lust, in contrast, thought tenure wasn't worth holding on to.
"In many respects, tenure is a concept that doesn't have much application in the education sector below the university level," he said.
Sly said tenure is often misunderstood.
"There is a perception that tenure... means that teachers who are tenured cannot be fired. That is a misconception," she said. "What tenure... means is due process. They cannot be fired because they have a difference of opinion with their evaluator."
Sly said that in states where all teachers are part of the union, tenure means something different than in a right-to-work state like South Dakota where teachers associations "do not want poor teachers to continue in their classroom either."
But Sly said she will consider Daugaard's tenure proposal carefully and likes that the governor put forward a bold proposal.
The Associated School Boards of South Dakota have put forward proposals to reform tenure in the past but have never called for it to be abolished, executive director Wade Pogany said. He said his organization is going to take time and consider Daugaard's proposal before supporting or rejecting it.
Mitchell said the issue of teacher tenure is divisive for school administrators. Some endorse tenure as enhancing teaching, while others see it as an impediment to good management.
The Rapid City superintendent said he is more on the former side, though he isn't closing the door on Daugaard's proposal.
"I believe in the overall vision of what the governor's trying to do," Mitchell said. "There's going to have to be a lot more dialogue as to the means."
Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or email@example.com