By Victor Skinner

PIERRE, S.D. – South Dakota voters will weigh in on several education reforms pushed by South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, as well as a union-sponsored sales tax increase proposal, when they cast their ballots Nov. 6.

Labor interests are pushing the tax increase while the governor opposes it.

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Voters will be asked to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase, moving the state rate from 4 to 5 percent, to raise $180 million to go to school districts and Medicaid providers. The state teachers union and health care facilities contend the revenue is necessary to offset spending cuts used to balance the state budget during the economic slump, the Associated Press reports.

Of the $77 million in school and Medicaid spending cut in 2011, $18 million was restored this year. That means schools and Medicaid providers received $59 million less than they would have liked, but the proposed sales tax increase provides more than three times that amount, Daugaard told the AP.

“It would be the largest sales tax increase in history,” he said.

Of course, using union math, a freeze in education spending the year prior to the 2011 cut somehow equates to lost revenue, and that must be made up to pay for automatic raises, school retirement bonuses, unused sick day bonuses, extra pay for bus duty or lunchroom supervision, extracurricular pay, and countless other expensive items commonly found in teachers union contracts.

“This funding really doesn’t even bring us back to where we should be,” South Dakota Education Association President Sandy Arseneault groaned to the AP.

Ironically, while money is typically the union’s answer for all that ails education, labor leaders are not very interested in giving more of it to the top teachers. Daugaard crafted a teacher merit pay plan and the Legislature passed a modified version of it last year.

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The SDEA collected signatures to challenge the issue on the ballot, but voters will consider the governor’s original plan, which would award the top 20 percent of teachers a $5,000 bonus beginning in the 2014-15 school year, the AP reports.

Daugaard’s plan also includes $2,500 scholarships for aspiring math and science teachers beginning in 2014, according to the news service.

“I’m hopeful the voting public will see this as a step forward to increasing student achievement,” Daugaard told the AP.

We have no doubt that Daugaard’s merit pay plan would inspire teachers to strive for their best by providing a reward for those who do. It is a significant step toward paying teachers based on their abilities, but that’s exactly the type of professional system the union despises.

Teachers unions believe that all teachers should be paid the same, regardless of how well they do their jobs, and pay increases should be automatic, based on the number of years someone is employed and the number of college credits they accumulate.

SDEA’s Arseneault contends that merit pay will only improve some teachers, and the state should focus on improving all teachers.

But what she and the rest of her ilk don’t seem to understand is that by providing an incentive, far more teachers will be striving to reach the top 20 percent than if there is no incentive at all.  And more great teachers will stay where they are, instead of leaving out of frustration. How can an excellent teacher feel appreciated when he or she is paid the same as the slacker colleague down the hall. The incentives are just common sense.

The same can be said of Daugaard’s logical moves to trim education spending to maintain a balanced state budget. There’s no need to increase taxes to spend three times the reduction.

The AP reports that the ballot questions will serve as a referendum on Daugaard’s first two years in office.

We’re willing to bet that many voters will recognize Dauggard’s education reforms as valuable for the future of state schools, and will soundly reject the union-sponsored tax increase.

We’ll find out if we’re right in less than two weeks.