Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s proposed reshaping of South Dakota’s K-12 education system, a controversial reform package that squeezed through the 2012 state Legislature by a single vote, now faces a pass-or-fail test with state voters.

South Dakota Education Association officials on Monday submitted an estimated 30,000 petition signatures to the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office in Pierre. That was about twice the 15,855 signatures needed to refer Daugaard’s plan to the general-election ballot this fall.

Barring a surprise in the validation process that seems unlikely, the submission sets up a five-month campaign that will involve a public examination of South Dakota education and Daugaard’s plans for its future.

Sue Podoll, president of the Rapid City Education Association and a petition carrier in the SDEA effort, said Monday that she was very pleased the referral drive produced so many signatures.

“People were very willing to sign once they had an idea of what the measure does,” she said. “They’re more than willing to put it on the ballot and have a say on the issue.”

The legislation, HB1234, made it through the Legislature with a final vote in the South Dakota House of 36-33. That was the exact number needed for majority decision in the 70-member House, as some members of the Republican Party split with the governor on the issue. HB1234 includes incentive pay for teachers, scholarships for teachers in training, bonuses for math and science teachers, a revised evaluation system for educators and a phase-out of teacher’s continuing contract rights.

Daugaard promoted the bill as a way to improve student learning and test performance while focusing limited state dollars on key essentials in the education system. Critics said it usurped local control in education and avoided the key issue of underfunding by the state.

Rep. Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton, the Democratic leader in the House, said the package was one area where Democrats and some Republicans, most of them in the conservative camp, found common ground in opposing.

“I think we agreed that it flies in the face of local control and that, as much as possible, education decisions should be made at that local level,” Hunhoff said. “We don’t want a state or a national takeover of our local schools. And I think a lot of Republican legislators agreed with that.”

With immediate budget cuts in Daugaard’s first year in office that took $50 million from schools, the No. 1 education issue in South Dakota is “clearly the need to provide some sort of basic funding,” Hunhoff said. Yet that issue was lost in the push for the governor’s package, Hunhoff said.

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Republican state Sen. Bruce Rampelberg of Rapid City supported the bill, however, as a necessary beginning to a process of improvement in a state education system that needs to raise students' test scores. Working groups made up of educators and education officials will have profound influence on how the plan is further shaped and implemented by the Legislature, Rampelberg said.

“There is no intent that 1234 is going to be developed by somebody outside. It’s going to be developed by our teachers, principals, superintendents,” Rampelberg said. “I think the intent of the plan is to keep moving forward in a way to do an even better job of educating kids than we can right now.”

Daugaard said in a news release that he wasn’t surprised that the referral drive succeeded, since the “teachers’ union put a lot of work into collecting signatures.”

Daugaard said he looked forward to the coming public discussion on the bill, which he said is “aimed at improving student achievement by channeling extra money directly to our best teachers and phasing out teacher tenure.”

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com

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