The extent to which national political movements sway South Dakota’s legislative priorities was rarely more evident than during a House Education Committee hearing in Pierre in early February 2022.
On the agenda was House Bill 1337, one of several education measures brought by Gov. Kristi Noem to keep critical race theory and “inherently divisive concepts” out of state classrooms, in this case by shielding elementary and secondary students from “political indoctrination” through race-based history, social science and civics.
After remarks by Allen Cambon, one of Noem’s senior policy advisors, committee members heard remotely from Stanley Kurtz, a conservative commentator and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Kurtz was well-positioned to testify because much of the bill directly matched language from “The Partisanship Out of Civics Act,” model legislation he drafted in early 2021 to help Republican-led statehouses fight against public schools becoming what he termed “playthings of the Left.”
Kurtz’s list of divisive ideas to be banned included the notion that slavery and racism “are anything other than deviations from the authentic founding principles of the United States,” as well as any race-based concept that makes someone feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of their (race, ethnicity or religion).”
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Those representing the interests of South Dakota public schools during the legislative hearing had pressing questions that were never fully answered: Why was a national political blueprint being thrust upon a state that had not documented local concerns about race-based curriculum? And why had Noem’s office consulted with a national arbiter of right-wing political strategy while neglecting to speak with school officials in her own state?
Kurtz declined an interview request for this story, and Noem spokesperson Ian Fury didn’t respond to a request for details about policy discussions between Kurtz and the governor’s office.
For Diana Miller, a former South Dakota Education Association president who now lobbies for school districts, the lack of communication fit a pattern during Noem’s tenure of making decisions regarding education without consulting local stakeholders.
“I worked with former governors Janklow, Rounds and Daugaard,” Miller said. “Back then, people in the governor’s office called us and asked about things. They asked for input and talked to superintendents. That isn’t happening now, and I don’t understand why.”
HB 1337, South Dakota’s political indoctrination bill, mirrored the wording in legislation banning CRT and action civics in states such as Texas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Missouri. The Republican legislator who brought the bill in Texas said he conferred with Kurtz in crafting the measure, which becomes law in that state Sept. 1.
The South Dakota bill was killed in the Senate Education Committee by a vote of 4-3. Noem followed with an April 5 executive order that contained much the same prohibitions against critical race theory, stressing that students should learn “America’s true, honest history” and banning divisive concepts in classroom teaching and state standards.
Passing the conservative test
Critical race theory, typically taught at the university graduate school level, is an academic theory that suggests race is a social construction and that systemic racism is still part of America’s laws and policies. Action civics is an alternative form of civics education in which students explore issues in their community and explore advocacy strategies.
The fact that Noem was influenced by Kurtz on these matters was not surprising. The first-term governor has worked to craft a profile as a potential national candidate, courting conservative media as part of the plan. In Kurtz’s view, though, she didn’t always walk the walk. When the state’s Department of Education supported social studies standards last year that Kurtz viewed as left-leaning, he blasted Noem for losing out to “hard-left activists” and questioned her conservative credentials in the National Review, an influential publication that boasts 25 million monthly page views.
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“We desperately need alternative models for history and civics education, and Noem is well-placed to create one,” Kurtz wrote. “To do so, however, she’ll need to go beyond showy gestures and govern as the bold conservative she claims to be.”
That essay ran Sept. 20, 2021. The same day, Noem instructed the Department of Education to delay changes to the state’s social studies standards for up to one year to allow for more public input. She went on to change the complexion of the standards committee to align ideologically with anti-CRT sentiment, enlisting a retired professor Will Morrisey from Hillsdale College, a Michigan-based conservative liberal arts institution, to help screen potential members.
Noem’s office also began preparing anti-indoctrination bills for the 2022 legislative session, using Kurtz’s template and inviting him to testify at hearings, where he warned against “the promotion of the idea that we are to be judged first and foremost” by racial or ethnic identity.
To education officials such as Jim Holbeck, a former Harrisburg School District superintendent who works for the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, it seemed like a coordinated attempt by partisan outsiders to control state curriculum rather than relying on local school boards, administrators and teachers.
“That’s the playbook now — you change what’s going on in the states and you can change the country,” said Holbeck. “So what do we do? Do we change curriculum every time there’s a new election? Do we write Republican curriculum and teach that and four years later write a Democratic curriculum? I mean, seriously. We’re going to mess kids up.”
‘How do you measure discomfort?’
Holbeck, the former Harrisburg superintendent, was teaching a workshop for aspiring administrators last month when he decided to try something new, based on discussions that had occurred within the state Legislature.
“I told them that their assignment was to answer the question, ‘What is critical race theory?’” Holbeck recalled. “The first person said, ‘I don’t know.’ The next one said, ‘I’m not sure.’ I got through eight people, and none of them had the definition. I said, ‘Do you see the problem here? We’re hearing so much about this CRT and how we’re not supposed to teach it, and we don’t even know what it is.”
Much of the language from Kurtz and others to characterize divisive classroom concepts comes from a national doctrine touting academic freedom from “woke” ideology. Supporters call it pushback to the social justice movement stemming from George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 and initiatives such as the New York Times “1619 Project,” which according to its editors sought to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.”
Part of the problem, said Holbeck, comes from viewing education through the prism of a white, Christian frame of reference. In communities with significant Native populations and in school districts such as Sioux Falls, where more than a quarter of students are Black or Hispanic, banning race-based history curriculum that makes some students uncomfortable becomes a matter of perspective.
Wade Pogany, executive director at Associated School Boards of South Dakota, posed the classroom hypothetical of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel about a white lawyer who represents a Black man unjustly accused of rape in a small town in 1930s Alabama, a staple of high school literature classes across the country.
“If I’m the teacher and I come to you as an administrator, can I teach that book?” Pogany asked during a committee hearing. “It deals with racism, discrimination, bullying. What if the students are uncomfortable with that and it causes them discomfort or anguish? How do you measure discomfort? We don’t know our parameters. In the final analysis, laws should give us direction, laws should be clear, and they should be put in place to solve a problem that actually exists in South Dakota.”
This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit news organization online at sdnewswatch.org.