Let’s Raise Teacher Pay, Not Deceive Educators

Posted February 22nd, 2016 in Education by isaac

One of the most contentious issues of the last legislative session was debate over teacher pay. As it was so heated, many misperceptions and mistruths arose. For this purpose, I want to clarify my position to you on this important South Dakota issue. I was, and still am, resolutely in favor of raising teacher pay.
I strongly supported SB 131, the governor’s bill that ensured school boards prioritized raising teacher salaries to an average of $48,500. This bill sent more money from our general fund to schools, with the result being increased teacher pay and a $62 million increase in overall education funding.

South Dakota ranked 37th out of 51st in the nation for education funding, but we stood dead last in terms of compensation for educators. SB131 was the Governor’s solution. It sent more money to schools, and put in place methods to ensure that more money went directly to teachers.

During the legislative session I replied to many e-mails, wrote newspaper articles, and did interviews to clearly communicate my position on this topic. It is sad to realize that media and lobbying organizations were willing to mislead educators on this topic.  In recent conversations I have discovered how much this deception still lingers, and it is important that you know the truth.

SB131 – A bill to increase teacher pay by $62 Million – The main bill. Increases teacher pay. Passed overwhelmingly.
HB1182 – A bill to increase sales tax by $107.4 Million – Just one option. Increased tax revenue. Doesn’t increase teacher pay.
$80 Million – Governor’s proposed budget increases before tax increases and teacher pay, based on increased revenues.
$420 million – Education reserve funds (Over 5 years of funding for teacher pay – State should provide districts security to get these funds to teachers)
$972 million – State tax exemptions,  over $50 million of which I supported eliminating. If we are going to raise taxes, this is how it should be done.

Unfortunately for our teachers, supporters of an increase to our state sales tax, found in HB 1182, mislead voters by portraying this tax hike as the bill that increased teacher pay. These supporters (including the SDEA) slandered opponents to this bill as opponents of increasing teacher pay. Then they sent educators to Pierre to lobby for this bill, telling them it increased teacher pay. Sadly, not one of the educators I talked to in Pierre had read 1182, and never heard of 131. The Governor gave the option of funding 131 either by using existing funds, requiring less spending in other areas, or by increasing taxes via 1182. It’s fine if some legislators want to increase taxes and spend more on other areas. But it is wrong to lie to teachers, ignore 131, and tell them that 1182=Teacher pay, which was completely false.

Many media outlets advanced this narrative, ensuring that the supporters of HB 1182 effectively silenced people like me, who were actually in favor or raising teacher pay without an unnecessary increase to taxes. The fact is, 1182 as introduced said nothing about teachers or salaries, precisely because it only dealt with tax rates. Even after weeks of teachers being sold on a disinformation campaign that 1182 increased teacher pay, and with the gallery filled with those who were told that opponents of 1182 were against teacher pay, there still were not enough votes to pass the tax increase, since it wasn’t required for the teacher pay increase. Remember, teacher pay was not even mentioned in the bill.

So, minutes before the vote, an amendment was added that said “sixty-three percent shall be dedicated to increasing teacher salaries.” This did nothing to change the fact that the actual teacher pay bill (SB131) which spent $62 million to increase teacher salaries, could have been funded by the $80M increase over our previous budget, OR by redirecting video lottery funds, OR by eliminating tax exemptions for special interest groups, OR by making better use of reserve funds. Most people do not even know that we began the session with $80 Million more to spend than the previous year without any new taxes. I was an advocate for funding education first.

You may ask, why not just support the tax increase? There are over 34 professions in this state that are 51st in pay compared to the national average. We owe it to those families in our district to look at every possible funding option before we further increase taxes, which was, in fact, the exact directive given by the blue ribbon task force. Tax increases like these could increase jobs in education, but they cause job losses for those who are even worse off than teachers. Is that fair? If we absolutely need increased tax revenues, we should start by examining the $972M of tax exemptions we currently have. Many are legitimate, but many are not. Should I take the easy vote to fleece the low income taxpayer, because lobbyists for the tax exemptions are too influential and legislators don’t have the spine to say no? That’s actually the problem with politics today. I won’t do that.

The tax increase bill should not have been voted on before voting on the teacher pay bill. This unnecessary conflict only served to confuse the issue, damage reputations, and increase taxes that disproportionately harmed those with lower incomes.

The anger and fear created by those intentionally misleading educators about the vote on the tax increase was wrong and unnecessary. The overwhelming majority of legislators favored funding teacher pay. It is our duty to examine all revenue sources and set the best priorities in our four billion dollar budget. I will continue to do this in the next legislative session if elected, as well as continue to fight for higher pay for undervalued South Dakota professions.

Having been a substitute teacher myself and experiencing firsthand the challenges educators face today, I know how important good teachers are to the development of this generation and the success of society in the future. I am committed to working to empower you to work together with parents and have the resources and freedom you need to fulfill this mission to the best of your ability.

I want to thank educators for the work you do, and I have always been eager to meet in person or via phone to hear your perspective, answer questions, and learn what I can do to empower you for success in your mission. I look forward to talking with you.

Sincerely,

Isaac Latterell
State Representative
South Dakota District 6