Category Archives: Education

Parents concerned about testing mandates to attend April 25 Sioux Falls School Board meeting

640343On Monday, April 25, there will be a rather large group of parents, grandparents, and other concerned individuals that will attend the Sioux Falls School District School Board meeting. A few of them will be speaking to share experiences with the School Board about federal and state mandated testing. This is an issue that has been coming to a head for quite some time and is possibly going to boil over this election season.

From what I understand about this event, this is not an attack on  teachers, administrators or the school board. Instead this will be an opportunity for parents and grandparents to tell their side of the story on how the 95% participation mandate for these standardized tests are negatively impacting their children. Further parents  constitutional rights to have a voice in their child’s education are being completely ignored. Maintaining this 95% mandate has caused administrators and teachers to behave in ways that have parents quite understandably upset. I will have more about this in a series of blog posts after the meeting.

It is also worth noting the state is currently being sued over its use of the current standardized test, the SBAC. The crux of the case appears to be the states illegal entry into a compact. While sitting at the hearing I also heard a pretty good civics lesson from Judge Barnett.

I am going to purposely keep this post short and wait until I hear from parents first-hand at the event what their frustrations and fears about the mandated tests are. Anyone living in the Sioux Falls school district that would like to hear about the frustrations of parents might find it worthwhile to attend this meeting. The meeting begins at 5:30 pm at the Instructional Planning Center (201 E. 38th Street, Sioux Falls SD). I will be in attendance and plan to do a series of posts later in the week based upon what I hear from concerned parents.

PS. This meeting also has the SFEA Contract Negotiations working agreement. Which will be the proposed teacher pay increase for the school district.

SD SBAC lawsuit revolves around the compact clause

Sauer spoke of three pillars of the compact clause.
Sauer spoke of three pillars of the compact clause.

Earlier this week there was a hearing for the case against the State of South Dakota for its entry into the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Previously I looked at the participants of this hearing. Also, about half a year ago I looked briefly at the complaint.  This post will look at the compact clause and why the plaintiff’s argue the state’s entry into SBAC is illegal.

Before looking at the case made by the plaintiff’s lawyer, John Sauer, it is worth reading the commerce clause.  The commerce clause is contained in Article I, § 10, cl. 3 of the US Constitution and says this:

No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power, or engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.

I have highlighted the relevant portion above. Sauer presented the case to the Judge Mark Barnett that the US Congress had not given authorization for the creation of the  compact created by SBAC. That means the state, through the compact entered into by the SD Department of Education, has illegally given up sovereignty reserved for the state. Further, that means the State of SD is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support this illegal compact.

To expand up on that idea Sauer spoke about three pillars of the compact clause. The first pillar is that no compact can be a threat to the supremacy of the federal government. Basically the states cannot create a compact to wield power that has been granted to the federal government.

The second pillar Sauer spoke about was that a compact cannot be a threat to the supremacy of the states sovereign power. The SBAC in particular would be a violation of this second pillar because the SD DOE has given power over directing education to the SBAC compact. Since Congress did not authorize the states to cede their power through the compact it would make the SBAC compact illegal. Further, the Department of Education paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to this illegal compact would also be an illegal action.

Finally, the third pillar mentioned by the Sauer is that any threats to the sovereignty of non-member states must be protected.  If I understand this correctly, it means that states cannot form a compact that will burden non-member states in some fashion.

Sauer made the case that all three pillars are important and it is the job of the US Congress to determine whether a compact can proceed and not be a threat to federal supremacy, state sovereignty, or non-member sovereignty. Sauer made the case that the SBAC compact outright breaks the second pillar, and also it may break the third pillar because of the unfair environment the SBAC compact places on non-member states.

The states defense lawyers tried to make the case that South Dakota is not in violation of the compact clause because SD is not in fact in a compact. SBAC was originally created by a grant that came about 2010 by the federal Race to the Top program. In 2014 it appears those running the SBAC compact might have realized there were problems with an interstate compact that was not authorized by Congress. In that year the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Graduate School of Education and Information Studies housed the SBAC program. Then at that time UCLA created a Memorandum of Understand (MOU) between each member state and UCLA. This UCLA-MOU gives each member state a controlling interest in the Smarter Balance Assessment. It also appears to be a way to create a compact without calling it a compact. It however still operates and appears to have the functions of a compact. Part of what judge Mark Barnett will have to decide is whether the UCLA-MOU counts as a compact, or as a contract between the State of SD and UCLA. Personally I think Sauer made the case that the SBAC compact is still in place, even if it has been renamed.

I believe the current SBAC MOU is this one signed by SD Department of Education Secretary Melody Schopp on July 31, 2014. I have also included a copy of the MOU below in case it accidentally is removed from the SD website:


Barnett noted he would likely read the MOU before making his decision. I think the most instructive part of the MOU is that the governing board shall be made up of one representative from each member state. To me that seems pretty clear this is an inter-state compact between member states. One that should require Congressional approval.

At the end of his testimony Sauer reiterated that SBAC is an illegal compact, and as such the state of South Dakota cannot be a member of this illegal entity or pay dues to this illegal entity. I think Sauer made a good case as to why the SBAC is an illegal compact. Within 90 days we should find out how judge Barnett rules.

Over the next couple of days I will look at some other smaller arguments that came up in the SBAC hearing. I don’t think these other arguments will have much relevance on judge Barnett’s ruling, but I believe they are interesting nonetheless.

SBAC lawsuit hearing was today, posts forthcoming over the next few days

Hughes County Courthouse. Photo by Ken Santema 4/5/16.
Hughes County Courthouse. Photo by Ken Santema 4/5/16.

Last November I noted the State of South Dakota is being sued by two SD taxpayers, Shelli Grinager and Amber Mauricio, for the state’s entry into the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), a firm out of MI, filed the lawsuit in Hughes County on November 10, 2015. The complaint filed can be read here; and the press release from TMLC can be read here. Today in Pierre, at the Hughes County Courthouse, the hearing was held for the lawsuit. Over the next few days I’ll do some posts coming out of this hearing.

Today I will just mention the judge and lawyers involved. The judge involved is 6th circuit judge Mark Barnett. From 1991-2003 Barnett was the SD Attorney General.

The lawyer on the plaintiffs side that did all the talking was D. John Sauer, of the James Otis Law Group out of St. Louis, Missouri. Sauer is credited with winning the lawsuit that stopped Common Core in Missouri. Assisting Sauer is Robert Rohl of Johnson Eiesland Law Offices located in Rapid City. Personally I think Sauer presented a good case before Barnett, but that is a topic for a future post…

There were two lawyers in attendance to defend the State of SD. The primary lawyer for the state was South Dakota Deputy Attorney General Richard Williams.  Assisting him was Bobbi Rank, who works in the legal office of the SD Department of Education.

One of the plaintiffs, Amber Mauricio, was also in attendance.

Over the next few days I’ll post a few articles looking deeper into topics mentioned during the hearing. If I understand the process correctly the Judge has 90 days to be done with his decision.

Four Dept of Ed bills prefiled

Updated 1/8/16 – Added info about standardized testing to HB 1013, an observant reader noticed I missed this.

The South Dakota Department of Education has four bills prefiled for the 2016 legislative session. The only bill I will likely be watching closely is SB9; mostly because the DOE is looking to spend a lot of money and I have little trust in their ability to actually use the money as it is intended.

HB 1013 (SoDakLiberty Posts) – Revise certain provisions regarding alternative instruction achievement tests for children excused from school attendance.

The Committee on Education is the prime sponsor at the request of the Department of Education.

This bill makes a couple of small changes to § 13-27-3.  The following sentence is modified by HB 1013:

The individuals are individual is not required to be certified.

The sentence before seems to make it possible that there is more than one individual providing instruction.

The bill would also remove second graders from taking a “nationally standardized achievement test of the basic skills”. That change is good.

HB 1014 (SoDakLiberty Posts) – Authorize the sale of certain surplus real estate and to provide for the deposit of the proceeds.

Sully County screenshot from SDDOT map.
Sully County screenshot from SDDOT map.

The Committee on Education is the prime sponsor at the request of the Department of Education.

This bill appears to be on behalf of the State Historical Society. It would allow the commissioner of school and public lands to sell real estate (plus property and improvements on that land) in Sully County currently under the control of the State Historical Society.

Here is part of the bill which shows where the land came from and how much land there is:

also described in the Warranty Deed, Mrs. Agnes B. Whitlock, Grantor to the State of South Dakota for the benefit of the State Historical Society consisting of 97.5 acres more or less.

I don’t see any problems with this bill. It is allowing the State Historical Society to sell of land that was left for the benefit of the State Historical Society. Plus, it is always good to see land get away from government control.

SB 8 (SoDakLiberty Posts) – Revise certain provisions regarding background investigations for prospective employees of the postsecondary technical institutes and to transfer certain funds regarding postsecondary technical credentialing.

The Committee on Education is the prime sponsor at the request of the Department of Education.

This is a bill that matches the title. Currently teachers for the tech schools don’t require a background check to get hired, unless they will be teaching elementary or high school kids. This would make it mandatory to background check all prospective employees for the tech schools.

Currently there is a fee for credentialing postsecondary technical teachers that goes to the postsecondary technical credentialing fund. This bill appears to get rid of that fund and put that money into the state institute fund. § 13-42-5.1 is the statute that handles the state institute fund and is set up for the following reason:

shall be used for the purpose of writing and publishing bulletins, accreditation rules, and materials essential to the school systems of this state, and to support activities related to school accreditation and teacher training and retention

I don’t really see why either change is necessary. Perhaps a good reason will come up during the Ed committee meeting.

SB 9 (SoDakLiberty Posts) – Make an appropriation to fund the Native American achievement schools grant program and paraprofessional tuition assistance scholarship program and to declare an emergency.

The Committee on Education is the prime sponsor at the request of the Department of Education.

This bill would appropriate $2,200,000 “to the Department of Education for the purposes of funding the Native American achievement schools grant program and the paraprofessional tuition assistance scholarship program.”

This is one I’ll listen to for sure since it is a lot of money. Mostly I’ll listen to be sure this isn’t one of the programs the state has been wasting tax dollars by spending a lot of money on consultants with little money actually going to help students or educators. Anytime the DOE spends money like this it has to be done with extra scrutiny.

South Dakota being sued over SBAC in the battle against Common Core

Common Core new math © Gregory Johnston |
Common Core new math © Gregory Johnston |

The State of South Dakota is being sued by two SD taxpayers, Shelli Grinager and Amber Mauricio, for the state’s entry into the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), a firm out of MI, filed the lawsuit in Hughes County on November 10, 2015. The complaint filed can be read here; and the press release from TMLC can be read here. This lawsuit is great news for South Dakotan’s that have been fighting the battle against Common Core in the state.

The defendants listed in the complaint are:

  • DENNIS M. DAUGAARD, in his official capacity as the Governor of the State of South Dakota
  • DR. MELODY SCHOPP, in her official capacity as the Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Education
  • RICHARD L. SATTGAST, in his official capacity as South Dakota State Treasurer

There are three paragraphs in the nature of the action portion of the complaint. First there is the core of the case: South Dakota’s entry into the SBAC is an “illegal interstate compact”.

1. This case presents a taxpayer challenge to the disbursement of South Dakota funds to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (“SBAC”), an illegal interstate compact not authorized by the United States Congress, whose existence and operation violate Article I, § 10, cl. 3 of the United States Constitution and other provisions of federal and state law.

Article I, § 10, cl. 3 says this:

No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power, or engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.

Actually I hope this is accepted by the courts, and not just in the battle against Common Core. There are a number of compacts the state has entered that costs the taxpayers a lot of money and do little more than expand bureaucracies and the regulation state.

Second in the nature of the action section is important because it establishes that the taxpayers in South Dakota are on the hook financially to support this illegal interstate compact:

2. Since 2010, South Dakota state officials have engaged in a course of conduct that would cede a portion of South Dakota’s sovereignty over educational policy within its borders to SBAC, an interstate consortium operating under the influence of federal regulators located in Washington, D.C. Congress never sanctioned the interstate compact that created this consortium. As a result, South Dakota is poised to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds during Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016 to support this illegal interstate compact.

Actually the above paragraph sums up quite well the reasons that many oppose Common Core. By entering into Common Core the State of South Dakota has chosen to give up local control over public education. The SD State Constitution tasks the state legislature with providing public education. By entering into Common Core and SBAC,  the SD Dept of Ed has to a large extent decided that federal regulators know better how to educate South Dakotan children than people within the state can. Not only that, but the taxpayers of South Dakota have to pay for allowing federal regulators to intervene in South Dakota’s public education.

And finally in the nature of the action:

Plaintiffs, as South Dakota taxpayers, will suffer irreparable harm if such taxpayer funds are disbursed before these controversies are resolved by the Court.

I would think this last point is timely since the Blue Ribbon Task Force is recommending a massive sales tax increase in 2016 to raise teacher pay. Perhaps instead of pouring taxpayer dollars into implementing the massive social experiment called Common Core (including SBAC), the state should be using its taxpayer dollars in a more conservative manner that will increase the pay of teachers and provide those same teachers the tools necessary to teach the children of South Dakota.

Thus far I have only skimmed the rest of the complaint. After I read more there will likely be addition posts about the lawsuit. Hopefully this lawsuit will force South Dakota to what is best for the youth of the state, instead of what is best for bureaucrats that love to play with statistics about students.

Final recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Task Force

The finalized report for the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students is now available online. I haven’t had a chance to read through all of the document yet, but I have read through the recommendations.

Here are a couple of the recommendations from the task force worth pointing out:

Adopt a new formula based on a statewide target for statewide average teacher salary of $48,000 and maintain the average statewide student-to-teacher ratio at approximately 14:1.

I guess my biggest question is how long it takes to create a new formula? Also how is the legislature going to ensure all of the new money goes to teacher pay without taking away local control?

At least $75 million in new ongoing funding for teacher salaries.

Use existing funds to the greatest extent possible.

Increase the state sales and use tax for additional ongoing revenue.

I guess my big question is does anyone believe the legislature is really going to find a way to use existing funds? That would mean making tough decisions. It is what should be done, but won’t be for political reasons. Instead there will likely be a push for a sales tax increase. Personally I still believe a new tourism sales tax from May thru October will be passed. There is no reason for it since there is plenty of other programs such as GOED that can be cut, but it is what I see as likely.

Reinstate statutory caps on school district general fund reserves.

I wonder how local school boards will like being told this. I can’t imagine they will like it.

I probably won’t blog about this again until the bills start coming out. This whole task force has been little more than a farce with the outcomes predetermined earlier this spring.

Rep Lance Russell requests SD Ed Sec Melody Schopp step down

Rep Lance Russel speaking on the SD House floor. Photo by Ken Santema 03/10/15.
Rep Lance Russel speaking on the SD House floor. Photo by Ken Santema 03/10/15.

South Dakota State Representative Lance Russell (R, Dist 30) has sent a letter to Melody Schopp asking her to step down as the SD Secretary of Education. This is in response to the growing GEAR UP scandal and Schopp’s lack of oversight being provided to taxpayer dollars.

Soundbites of an interview with Russell about the letter can be found on the KCCR website.  During that interview Russell had this to say:

Obviously this program was off the rails…

There was no oversight, as far as I can tell, of this program.

This appears to be part of a larger systemic problem in South Dakota, in that federal programs used in the state have little or no oversight and are ripe for exploitation. Since the Department of Education was the state agency responsible for directing the funds of the GEAR UP grant, that same department should have provided at least minimal oversight. I don’t think it would be too much to ask that the Federal dollars (taxpayer dollars!) being used should be done conservatively and in a way that will actually be used as intended. Actually I think Rep Russel said it best when said the program was “off the rails”.

A copy of the letter Rep Lance Russell sent to Schopp can be viewed on the South Dakota War College.  In part Russell says:

As a state representative, I believe I have a duty to our children and the taxpayers to make certain that state agencies effectively manage the resources entrusted for the maximum benefit of the people.

I thought that was well worded. With the sudden influx of scandals relating to federal grants over the last few years in South Dakota, it is time to start holding those accountable that refuse to be good stewards of the taxpayers money. Bureaucrats such as Schopp are not elected. Instead they are appointed; in this case by Governor Daugaard. Russell’s letter doesn’t ask for Schopp to be investigated, prosecuted, or any other action. Instead it appears from my perspective Russell is asking Schopp to step down so she can be replaced with someone who can implement transparency and accountability in the SD Dept of Ed. Perhaps it is time the heads of other state agencies are asked to do the same…

More will definitely come on this subject. Actually, I wonder if a lack of confidence from some of the more conservative legislators in Schopp will be used to derail the Blue Ribbon Task Force’s likely attempt to raise taxes for higher teacher pay. After all, how can the legislature be sure the new moneys being collected by the state will be properly utilized if the Secretary of Education cannot be trusted to provide oversight over the use of existing programs.

PS. Almost forgot. There is a petition asking for Schopp to retire.

A brief look at the failed attempt to call a special session of the SD Legislature

Rep Elizabeth May speaking on the SD House floor. Photo by Ken Santema 02/24/15
Rep Elizabeth May speaking on the SD House floor. Photo by Ken Santema 02/24/15

Last month Rep Elizabeth May (R, Dist 27) sent out a letter to legislators asking for a special session of the SD legislature for the purpose of “addressing the system of educating elementary and secondary students in the state”. Unfortunately I was busy at the time, so I was unable to blog about it. Now that I have some time I will take a few minutes to look at what the special session would have been about, and why it should have been called (even though it would have done no good).

The letter from Rep May and the petition she sent out to fellow legislators can be read on her website.

This special session is a reaction to the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education theater currently being held in South Dakota.  Originally the task-force was sold as a way to look at how education is funded and other peripheral issues dealing with how that money is used. Yet when the task-force was created it has become quite obvious that funding is the only area that will be looked at. In particular some areas of state mandated costs increases, such as the implementation of Common Core and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing, are completely off the table in this task-force. It is odd these topics are off the table, because they are being mandated by the state and adding to the cost of public education in South Dakota. There are many that feel the Blue Ribbon Task Force is nothing but political theater being used to push a large tax increase in the 2016 legislative session; in much the same way the Transportation funding committee was able to get a massive infrastructure tax increased passed during the 2015 legislative session (SB 1 –SoDakLiberty Posts).

It is too bad. The task-force could have been an opportunity to truly fix some of the problems with public education in South Dakota. But without looking at both the revenue and expenditures it means the task-force is basically admitting that ‘revenue enhancements’ are the only way to fix problems. It is almost mind-boggling that a Republican legislature believes that simply throwing more money at the problem will fix it… (and no, I’m not saying public education doesn’t need more money, I’m saying simply throwing money at any problem doesn’t fix any underlying issues).

Part of this goes back to what I’ve blogged about before. The problem with the Blue Ribbon Task Force isn’t how the meetings are being conducted, the problem is the topic that has been chosen. Here is part of what I had to say in that post and it still sums up by feelings about the Task Force:

There just seems to be a disconnect when the Task Force is saying on the one hand that SD needs to discover how other states are able to do more with less money; but at the same time the public meetings will only look at how to increase funding. It is almost like hearing “our school districts in SD are wasting our money” while simultaneously hearing from the same source “we need to raise more taxes to fund our school districts”. Having such a large disconnect is just asking for trouble.

Rep May did not receive that many yes replies to her call for a special session. Actually the part that really annoys me is that many legislators didn’t even both to pick up their certified letter from a fellow legislator. I can understand that many of the legislators feel Rep May is wrong, but to not even get the certified letter from a fellow legislator makes me wonder how well those same elected officials are at listening to constituents. The list of legislators and their replies (or non-replies) can be found on Rep May’s website.  I was happy to see some Democrats step up and join the Republicans that aren’t afraid to go against the establishment.

Personally I think the special session would have been a good thing. It could have been used to redirect the Blue Ribbon Task Force to look at more than just revenue enhancements (tax increases). But even if the special session had been successfully called it is very unlikely that anything would happen. Too few legislators in Pierre are willing to go against the Executive branch in battles such as this. Perhaps in the 2016 legislative races  it will be possible to get a few more representatives in Pierre elected that realize they work for their constituents, and not the executive branch.

Some thoughts after attending the WTN educator session of the Blue Ribbon Task Force

Sen Deb Soholt speaking on the Senate floor. Soholt is co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force. Photo by Ken Santema 02/11/15.
Sen Deb Soholt speaking on the Senate floor. Soholt is co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force. Photo by Ken Santema 02/11/15.

Today I attended the educator public meeting in Watertown as part of the SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education. Yesterday I posted that I was skeptical of the public meetings, mostly because it appears the meetings may be using the Delphi Technique to skew results towards a wanted result. After attending this meeting and more contemplation/research I’ve slightly changed my thoughts on the Blue Ribbon Task Force public meetings.

Before going into that I want to mention that the business stakeholder session in Watertown was cancelled because no business owners showed up. I was quite disappointing with that. As a business owner I can understand that finding time for such meetings can be difficult. But it was troubling to me that not a single business owner in Watertown could be bothered to attend. The Task Force actually did quite a bit to inform the community of the meeting. I also ended up skipping the general public session because I didn’t see any point in hanging out in Watertown for two and half hours waiting to see if anyone would show up.

OK, back to the educator session. As has been reported previously, the session use a Delphi technique to run the meeting. I only attended the one session, but from what I could tell Delphi techniques were properly utilized to run the meeting. The facilitator did NOT try to lead the group towards certain conclusions. I’ve seen that done many times by corporations when I would do contract work as a Project Manager. I’ve seen Delphi methodologies utilized many times, and in my assessment the meeting in Watertown was run properly.

There have also been reports that certain talking points were off-limits during the meeting. That is somewhat correct. During her opening remarks the task force co-chair Sen Deb Soholt (R, Dist 14) mentioned these meetings were only to deal with funding. To that she added talk about standards, curriculum, teacher quality, and other topics would be considered off-topic. To sum it up Soholt said “if it has to do with money, its fine to talk about”. That statement did leave some opening for talking about other issues, if it was done in the framework of money. I didn’t actually see that really happen much though. And when small groups did go off-topic I didn’t see any facilitators swoop in and shut down the conversation. Actually the facilitators and task force members in attendance seemed to just sit back and listen.

Even though I think the Delphi technique was used correctly I still have issues with aspects of the meeting. First and foremost is the focus of these public meetings. During the meeting there are three broad questions that are asked that follow the same overarching question that is provided to each participant:

What possibilities are there to meaningfully fund education for our kids and our communities.

The very purpose of these meetings is talk about funding. Based upon that topic everything I seen about how the meeting was facilitated was run correctly. How the meeting was conducted is less important than why the meeting was conducted.

Here is part of what Governor Daugaard said when establishing this task force:

We need to understand where teacher shortages are occurring and what can be done to address them. We need to ask why 12 states can spend less per student than South Dakota, yet pay their teachers more. We need to ask why, even as we hear growing concerns about teacher salaries, many schools’ reserve funds are increasing. These questions need to be answered with hard data, not anecdotes or opinion surveys.

South Dakotans want a quality education for every student, and we want great teachers to provide that education. Through this process, we can gain confidence that our state funding system is focused on achieving these important goals.

Part of the Governor’s stated purpose of the task force is to look at how 12 states spend less per student and yet have higher teacher pay. Many of us believe the Governors statement should be taken to mean that not only new funding sources should be looked at, but also look at how current funding is used to foster a quality education. Yet the stated goal of these public meetings is to look purely at funding, and not necessarily on what is driving the costs behind education.

There just seems to be a disconnect when the Task Force is saying on the one hand that SD needs to discover how other states are able to do more with less money; but at the same time the public meetings will only look at how to increase funding. It is almost like hearing “our school districts in SD are wasting our money” while simultaneously hearing from the same source “we need to raise more taxes to fund our school districts”. Having such a large disconnect is just asking for trouble.

Personally I wish the topic, or what they call ‘overarching question’, of the public meetings would actually be something like the following:

What possibilities are there to ensure education funding is using the proper balance of cost effectiveness and quality. And what possibilities are there to enhance education funding for areas that are found lacking.

Such a topic is a lot more broad to be sure; and would likely require longer public input meetings. It would also potentially cause other issues because local control has to be balanced. But at the same time a lot of local control is already lost because of federal and state mandates on how certain funds are used.

Yet a topic like I propose would allow the public to at least provide their input on education costs. Right now it feels to many like the meetings are nothing more than providing input on what type of tax increase is most palatable. During the introduction of the meeting it was mentioned that the panel has been speaking to other stakeholders about costs and they are in fact looking at them. So why not let the public also provide feedback?

To wrap this post up. Yes, a Delphi methodology was used to conduct this meeting. The Watertown meeting was conducted in what I would consider to be a fair way based upon the topic. For me the real problem with these public meetings isn’t how the meetings are conducted, but that they are focused too narrowly on raising education funding while ignoring the costs. In the end I think it is still safe to say the Blue Ribbon Task Force will be used to create a series of revenue enhancements similar to those seen for infrastructure funding this year. It should make for an interesting legislative session in 2016.

Tomorrow I plan to attend the Aberdeen meetings (hopefully there will be all three sessions). After that I hope to post about the actual content of the meetings. I think I’ve said more than enough about how the meetings are being conducted…

I’m going to the Blue Ribbon Task Force meetings this week, but I’m very skeptical of smoke and mirrors

SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education logo.
SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education logo.

This week the SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education will have public meetings in Watertown and Aberdeen. The task force was created this legislative session by the Governor. According to the  Blue Ribbon Task Force website it was created for this purpose:

South Dakotans have three goals in education. We all want:

  1. A quality system of schools focused on student achievement;
  2. A workforce of great teachers; and
  3. An efficient, equitable funding system that supports those goals.

That is why I have joined with legislative leaders to create a Blue Ribbon Task-Force on Teachers and Students. This task-force will reevaluate the current funding formula, collect and analyze data, engage with stakeholders, and seek public input. The task-force will then make recommendations to the 2016 State Legislature for reform.

As Sen Brock Greenfield  (R, Dist 2) noted recently in Aberdeen, this focus purely on funding was not how the task force was originally sold. Sen Greenfield and Rep Elizabeth May (R, Dist 27) have been critical of the Blue Ribbon Task force, and I believe rightfully so. It is almost mind-boggling that a Republican controlled Task Force would focus purely upon raising revenue (raising taxes) without looking at the costs and ensuring any new revenues are not simply being thrown to fix a problem without looking to see if there are any cost root issues. I find it troubling that the leadership in charge of the task force have asked other legislators not be involved with the task force meetings. Shouldn’t this be a time where legislators are interacting with constituents and working together?

It is actually easy to explain why legislators such as Greenfield and May are being asked to refrain from speaking at such events (all legislators were asked to be quiet, but I have no doubt the policy was created because of outspoken legislators like them). The meetings use the Delphi Technique to run the public meetings, and contrary opinions are not wanted at these meetings.

Investopedia has a good explanation of what the Delphi Method is:

The Delphi Method seeks to aggregate opinions from a diverse set of experts, and can be done without having to bring everyone together for a physical meeting. Because the responses of the participants are anonymous, individual panelists don’t have to worry about repercussions for their opinions. Consensus can be reached over time as opinions are swayed.

But, the panel is not truly using the Delphi Method, they are using a skewed version of it called the Delphi Technique. The best definition I’ve found of the Delphi Technique comes from a paper by Chia-Chien Hsu and Brian A. Sandford:

The Delphi technique is a widely used and accepted method for gathering data from respondents within their domain of expertise. The technique is designed as a group communication process which aims to achieve a convergence of opinion on a specific real-world issue.

On its face that seems like a great way to run a public meeting. It would appear to make sure that every part of the group would be taken into account in order to solve issues. That is exactly what the Blue Ribbon Task Force is supposedly trying to do. Yet the in the paper by HSU and Sanford there are downsides to the Delphi Technique:

The iteration characteristics of the Delphi technique can potentially enable investigators to mold opinions (Altschuld, 2003). An experiment, conducted by Scheibe, Skutsch, and Schofer (1975), indicated that Delphi subjects would rate their responses differently after receiving a distorted feedback. Dalkey and Helmer (1963) also noted that, “some ‘leading’ by the experimenters inevitably resulted from the selection of the information supplied” (p. 467). Moreover, Cyphert and Gant (1971) illustrated that a statement in their study was initially rated below average. However, Delphi subjects rated the statement above average after receiving false feedback. Therefore, Cyphert and Gant (1971) concluded that the Delphi technique could, “be used to mold opinion as well as to collect [data]” (p. 273). Indeed, “subtle pressure to conform with group ratings” was one of the major drawbacks in the Delphi technique (Witkin & Altschuld, 1995, p. 188). Delphi investigators need to be cognizant, exercise caution, and implement the proper safeguards in dealing with this issue

I bolded the key parts of the problems with the Delphi Technique above. And from personal experience I can say that the Delphi Technique can (and often is) used by many large organizations to actually change the culture and opinions of a target audience. When used in a less than moral fashion the Delphi Technique is nothing but a smoke-and-mirror show that fools participants into believing their voices are actually heard.

Recently a My Voice article in the Argus Leader written by Florence K. Thompson highlighted some problems with using the Delphi Technique (the whole think is worth reading):

Smiley-faced, flattering, “facilitators” control the proceedings, herding participants into ever-changing small groups, which must come up with a consensus solution to severely limited questions, on a sticky-note. (It’s sort of the socialist version of a Tupperware party.) These sticky-notes then become “data” which is supposedly tabulated by other facilitators and which will be later, lauded by politicians. Groups are stacked with “friendlies” who come up with ideas to support the hidden agenda. This process produces “buy-in” or “ownership” from trusting participants, who are tricked into believing that they had real input, leading them to agree wholeheartedly with the group’s rigged consensus.

Any contrary opinions are not reported. People who raise objections to the limitations on free debate are blocked from participating. Those who persist, feel the pressures of social ostracism for not cooperating and not being “nice people.” “Some people are talking about things they’re not supposed to,” warned the facilitator over the microphone at the Rapid City meeting of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education Funding. An unauthorized sticky-note with a divergent opinion was immediately snatched off the display board by an angry facilitator.

Normally in Delphi Technique situations they have haven’t been so blatant about keeping dissenting opinions out. But other than that, everything reported by Thompson matches up with how I’ve seen other organizations misuse the Delphi Technique.

This week there are Blue Ribbon Task Force meetings scheduled in Watertown and Aberdeen. I hope to attend the meetings in both locations and see for myself if the meetings appear to be nothing but a smoke-and-mirror illusion being used to push for a large sales tax increase in 2016.