Student Voices Resound In The Statehouse
By Kealey Bultena
South Dakota students made their way to the state Capitol in Pierre this week. While some learned more about the legislative process, many showed up to say they don’t support A ten percent cut to education looming over schools. These students are speaking up and hoping lawmakers listen.
Murmurs from legislators and lobbyists echo the halls of the Capitol every day during session. But this week, the voices are a little higher. Students from around the state have hopped on buses, carpooled, and driven themselves to the Statehouse as education advocates.
“If you don’t have a good education, you’re not going to have good leaders in the future,” Rachelle Norberg says.
Among a group of students chatting on a rotunda balcony, Norberg experiences some déjà vu. The Burke senior was a legislative page earlier this session, watching first-hand as lawmakers cast votes that impact her hometown.
“We’ve already had the opt out issue, and we can’t afford to have that much money cut out of our budget,” Norberg says.
In that same cluster of high schoolers, Thomas Hardcastle stands tall among his class from Mobridge High school. The senior says he’s in Pierre to see the legislative process unfold, but his attention is on planned cuts to education.
“People are always telling, children are our future, yadda yadda yadda, but it kind of shows their true colors when they’re willing to cut ten percent of the already low budget for schools,” Hardcastle says.
Hardcastle is concerned lawmakers are spending too much time crunching the numbers and not enough examining the consequences of that math.
“Instead of trying to give them a good educational environment and trying to expand their education, it makes me feel like they’re trying to not focus on our education and they’re trying to focus on the budget part, which in the end is really going to bring down everybody,” Hardcastle says.
The governor proposes ten percent cuts to all education, spanning from pre-kindergarten through higher ed. That’s why South Dakota’s college students are stressing the costs of another year of fewer dollars.
“I’m not saying that K through 12 isn’t important. It definitely is, and we need to do whatever we can to lessen the effects to them,” Jared Ellefson, a student at South Dakota State University, says. “But at the same time, we need to look at, at what point do we look at the investment of higher education in SD and what it does for the economy and take a look at cutting at that and how that effects the economy in the long run and in the short term.”
Ellefson and fellow students caravanned to Pierre and nearly filled the largest committee room in the Capitol. Some show their support by showing up. Others aren’t afraid to share real life experiences. University of South Dakota freshman Chris Aslesen says he’s already struggling to pay for college.
“It makes it really, really difficult to pay my tuition. :15 I come from an agricultural family, and from the get-go they told me I’d have to support myself. I’ve done everything I possible can to do so. I’ve worked countless hours during the summertime trying to raise enough for my tuition, and I still have to take out bank loans and go to alternate sources to try to pay for my tuition,” Aslesen says.
Aslesen says he’s not sure where he’ll find money for school these next three years. Once he gets his degree, in English education, he’s not convinced South Dakota offers what he needs.
“I love my state, and I feel I can benefit my community, my state in general, by helping educate the future generations, and I’d like to do that. I was a tutor in high school, and I look forward to teaching. I love doing it. But I don’t know if I can make that big of a sacrifice to stay here,” Aslesen says.
While Brooke Reiner’s situation isn’t as dire, the SDSU student says she feels the anxiety of bumping college rates again.
“I work like eighty hours during the summer trying to get as much money, because I know once I get to school it’s gone,” Reiner says.
Reiner says she’ll stay in school, but that isn’t feasible for all students facing tuition hikes, higher sticker prices on supplies like books, and a greater cost of living.
“It’s not like students are going to go to a different state. It’s like they’re not going to go to college at all. Well, I’ll just start working because I can’t afford it,” Reiner says. “That’s not going to help our economy. It’s not going to help our state in general, because then you have all these people with no education.”
USD student Kelly Wismer agrees. She’s concerned the quality of the state’s higher education is suffering at the hands of lawmakers’ red pens. Less funding means lower salaries, and Wismer says that’s driving talented professors out of South Dakota.
“I know of professors of mine that are actively searching for employment elsewhere and have found it and have left,” Wismer says. “And it’s hard to watch them go, because often times they’re not replaced.”
Wismer thinks professors will continue to leave unless South Dakota proves its commitment to educators and education in dollars, not discussion.
“I’ve got one year left at USD, but that’s not where it ends for me. That’s not where I stop caring. This is something that has been an issue for years and will continue to be an issue,” Wismer says.
They may be from rival universities, but Wismer and SDSU’s Jared Ellefson stand together against more fiscal cuts to South Dakota schools and greater burden for the state’s students.
“It’s time to stop being in the bottom percentile and start working toward propelling South Dakota and our youth, and making it so that South Dakota isn’t the last in everything,” Ellefson says. “Fiftieth in tax rate is good. If you’re proud of that, that’s fine. But take a look at what you’re doing to the state at the same time.”
“I hope that by coming out here, we were able to show a lot of students that they are willing to listen. There’s frustrating things and frustrating conversations happening, but students are a part of that, and they need to be a part of that.”
Some lawmakers took the time to have that discussion, but it’s unclear if the students' concerns were heard. Legislators have a week left in the main run of the session to consider public feedback and pass a balanced budget.
Member stations download audio file here.