Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

October 9, 2019

Rapid City Journal, Oct. 4

Who deserves blame for poor student testing?

The dismal statistics of a recent South Dakota News Watch story painted a simple picture: Just under half of state students fared poorly on English tests, and they fared worse in math and science.

Poor, immigrant and Native American children - many of them poor — depressed the curve.

Gov. Kristi Noem demanded remedies.

The story sketched solutions used with some success, but they all cost money, so expect the same dismal story to appear next year and in years following.

You don’t have to be in school to ignore important lessons.

A ridiculous amount of scholarly research has mapped available paths to better student outcomes. In essence: Kids need to be in secure and stable environments, understand the lessons presented, feel supported, receive help as needed and be held accountable.

Meanwhile, many taxpayers really don’t want to provide security or stability to struggling children. They want, they say, for parents to be held responsible, but really, for most, it’s sufficient that they blame the parents. Blame provides cover for the indifference showered onto struggling kids feeling hungry, insecure and neglected. Blame permits us to avoid our responsibilities for fixing problems, because, well, it’s not our fault.

Politicians use blame to further erode funding, ignoring volumes of educational research. Blame is an expedient solution to saving money. Too bad it never fixes anything.

Things were better, say some, in the days before we spent money to feed hungry students, counsel the abused and tutor those who can’t speak English well.

Yes, they certainly were different times. Back then, stay-at-home mothers had a sandwich waiting for a child who walked home for lunch. Back then, three TV channels played cartoons on Saturday mornings. There were no cellphones or internet games. Importantly, everybody was middle class.

In truth, poor or abused children struggled then, too, but they did so silently. We blamed them anyway.

The state’s lackluster test results came just two years after lawmakers addressed South Dakota’s last-in-the-nation teacher wages using revenue from a half-cent sales tax. So, either South Dakota invested in teachers and it didn’t pay off, or more must be done to address a problem generations in the making.

Blamers will take away the wrong lesson. Money blinds them.

In those good old days, grandparents and parents truly revered schools. Education was the key to a better future for everyone. They celebrated schools, students and all educational centers.

Today, many prefer to distrust education, fearing it fosters foreign ideas. Many blame administrators, teachers, parents and even the children. Blame absolves them.

Abundant distrust and blame will cause schools to leave many children unprepared for the technologically dependent 2030s. We’ll all suffer because of it. Today’s students will be our doctors, nurses, co-workers and bosses. Inadequate educations will restrict our country as it battles in an increasingly competitive world.

We already suffer from poor decisions made 30 years ago. Ask any employer. It’s getting harder to find capable, conscientious workers. We should expect more of the same.

Every parent knows they shoulder blame for some of their children’s failings. It’s a hard job. It’s even harder for those without money, good role models or a good education.

But blaming parents shouldn’t permit us to ignore the needs of children who will either become a productive part of our communities or dependent upon them.

We’re in a hole. We all see it. We don’t need another politicians’ plan to fix our schools. We need the political will and determination of ordinary citizens to do what is necessary.

We know what works: Parents helping children, early childhood education, programs that support English language learning, mentors, role models, good teachers, well-equipped schools and loads of long-lasting community support.

If you can’t identify your own roles in that picture, don’t blame somebody else for education’s demise. Blame yourself.


Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Oct. 4

‘We’re failing utterly’ with state’s drug laws. We don’t have to be.

In South Dakota, we’ve become accustomed to leading the nation in disheartening statistical categories.

So it was alarming but not necessarily surprising when a national nonprofit recently published data revealing that South Dakota jails more people per capita than any other state in America.

The Bureau of Justice report added that half the arrests in that data were drug- or alcohol-related, compared to 29 percent nationally, which was also not a major revelation.

On a per capita basis, according to FBI statistics, South Dakota ranks No. 1 in overall narcotics arrests, the byproduct of a system in which stiff drug laws swell jails and prisons with low-level offenders while failing to adequately address addiction counseling and continuing treatment.

As Minnehaha County puts the finishing touches on a nearly $50 million jail expansion, it’s a good time for state leaders to assess South Dakota’s largely reactive approach to the longstanding and complex conundrum of drug enforcement.

One thing we can all agree on is that the system isn’t working. The national statistics make that clear. But this isn’t a throw-up-your-hands scenario where nothing can be done to help reverse course.

A committee of legislators and court and law enforcement officials are studying state laws regulating controlled substances to determine if changes need to be made during the 2020 legislative session.

Of particular interest is the fact that South Dakota is the only state that treats ingestion of a controlled substance as a felony rather than misdemeanor, which helps fuel the incarceration rate.

Previous bills meant to lessen the penalty have failed, but lawmakers should take a fresh look as they explore ways to help non-violent offenders try to end the cycle of dependence and become less of a burden on the system.

Part of the answer lies with the state’s drug court system, which aims to reduce recidivism and substance abuse while increasing the likelihood of rehabilitation. But it’s only as good as the people and processes within it, so resources should be used to hire and retain qualified counselors and other support personnel.

David Gilbertson, chief justice of South Dakota Supreme Court, has spoken in favor of an inpatient program as part of the drug courts system and an expansion of those who qualify for services. Part of this is the understanding that a sturdy support system is critical to long-term sobriety, as is gainful employment and continuing education.

Having a felony ingestion conviction on one’s record makes it more difficult to assimilate back into the community, a factor which can contribute to recidivism and relapse.

Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo pointed out that many narcotics cases he prosecutes are still pending when the defendant runs afoul of the law again.

“What the numbers show me is that we’re failing utterly to address behaviors,” he said. “If you want to change people’s behaviors, we need to be doing something different than we are doing right now.”

That should be a rallying cry for Gov. Kristi Noem and Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, whose sincere desire to address the state’s drug epidemic could use a more nuanced approach.

Opioids in the form of prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl have joined methamphetamine as a legitimate crisis in the heartland — manifested by crippling addiction, drug-related crime, overcrowded prisons and overdose deaths.

Rather than digging in heels that more resources and latitude for law enforcement is the answer, which could mean more jail expansion on the way, why not use the existing research to chart a new path?

A glance at the state’s history on this matter and its placement in national crime statistics make it clear: We don’t have much to lose.


Aberdeen American News, Oct. 5

Vital to South Dakota, ethanol facing challenging times

Ethanol is vital to the Midwest, especially to South Dakota.

Our state has 16 ethanol biorefineries, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. South Dakota is one of the nation’s leaders in ethanol production.

That is why this summer’s ethanol plant closings in the Midwest have been unsettling. Industry leaders are looking for Washington, D.C., leaders to make changes to help ethanol survive.

President Donald Trump and his administration have taken much of the blame; though, he is promising relief for the ethanol industry via Twitter.

A step in that direction came Friday. That’s when he the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will request public comments on expanding biofuel requirements beginning next year.

The “EPA will seek comment on actions to ensure that more than 15 billion gallons of conventional ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply beginning in 2020, and that the volume obligation for biomass-based diesel is met. This will include accounting for relief expected to be provided for small refineries,” according to the announcement.

Final action is expected yet this year, and farmers in the Dakotas need that action.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has granted 85 oil refineries waivers from blending 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel into the nation’s fuel supply, according to a report in the Des Moines Register.

Those waivers have killed demand for 1.4 billion bushels of corn used to make ethanol, and wiped out demand for 825 million bushels of soybeans that go into biodiesel, industry leaders say.

That hit is significant for states like South Dakota, where farmers grow corn and soybeans used to make ethanol and biodiesel.

When Ag Processing Inc., commonly called AGP, opened its $300 million soybean facility in Aberdeen this July, there was optimism about a biodiesel facility being added to the plant site down the road. AGP is a leading producer of the biofuel at other locations.

Last month, the farmer-owned ethanol plant Siouxland Energy Cooperative in northwest Iowa shut down — the second in Iowa.

In August, South Dakota-based ethanol producer POET said it would cease production by mid-October at its Cloverdale plant, one of four ethanol plants it operates in Indiana.

There have been others, and talk of even more.

Some have described the situation as “a ticking time bomb” for the industry. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz wrote in a letter to President Trump noting that they were “extremely concerned by your Administration’s actions to continue to grant small refinery hardship waivers under the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

South Dakota U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson called the move “a step backward” and introduced legislation aimed at increasing transparency in the waiver process.

But the state’s congressional delegation and Noem praised Friday’s announcement.

The Des Moines Register also reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determines each year how much ethanol and biodiesel must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. The agency does so under a federal mandate called the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The EPA can grant exemptions to small, financially distressed oil companies, but biofuel advocates say the agency has been awarding them to giants such as ExxonMobil and Chevron Corp.

And the agency has failed to reallocate the exempted gallons to those companies not receiving waivers. The EPA has been “handing out waivers like candy,” said Kelly Nieuwenhuis, board president of the closing Siouxland Energy Cooperative ethanol plant in Iowa.

Nieuwenhuis added that the EPA could “decimate the investment farmers have made in this industry.”

Many farmers are standing firm in their support of the president. Farmer approval for Trump rose to 76 percent in September.

That was according to the latest Farm Journal Pulse Poll. The president’s ratings rebounded from a fall in August amid turmoil over trade deals and corn grower discontent over oil industry exemptions to ethanol blending requirements. Given the news this week, Trump’s numbers are likely to remain strong.

It has been a tremendously tough year for agriculture in much of South Dakota. Mounting, multiplying problems have led to mountains of stress on the farm and ranch.

There have been major declines in many commodity prices. There has been major flooding to deal with. First, many farmers had trouble getting their crops in, and now they can’t get them harvested.

All of this year’s water __first from heavy snowfall and now rains that won’t seem to end — have been hard on livestock growers as well.

Plus, there have been economic effects from the trade war.

Farmers got some relief last week when President Trump signed an interim trade deal with Japan. It calls for lower Japanese tariffs on U.S. farm exports, such as beef and pork. That’s reason for more hope.

But our farmers and ranchers need even more action, because some may go broke.

The agriculture and renewable fuels industries cannot sustain the loss of markets or demand right now. The Trump administration and the EPA should not be prioritizing the oil industry over the industries that help sustain the Heartland and conserve our planet’s nonrenewable fuels.

Friday’s announcement seems an indication that the president is considering farmers and ranchers — not just oil companies. And we applaud that.

The proposal was good. The next step is action. We need it and expect it.