GOP legislators draw a hard line on history in S.D. schools, universities beyond 2022 session

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The ban on seeking federal grants for history or civics now officially extends to South Dakota’s public higher education system, too. How long it might last beyond the 2022 legislative session isn’t clear.

The Legislature’s Republican-dominated Appropriations Committee voted 14-4 on Wednesday to notify the two boards that govern the six public universities and the four technical colleges of the panel’s intent.

The higher-ed letter follows the similar direction the committee gave in May through a letter of intent to the state Department of Education regarding K-12 public schools.

The letters say federal grants in history or civics shouldn’t be pursued until the Legislature has the chance to act in the 2022 session that opens January 11 and ends March 28.

The committee also intends to take an ongoing role in setting education policy for South Dakota.

Its letter to Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson said, “Note as well that, in view of the complex and sensitive issues at play in current controversies and pending legislative proposals regarding the teaching of American history and civics, it is the intention of the JCA that, even after proposed legislation on these topics is acted upon in the 2022 South Dakota legislative session, the Department of Education should continue to consult with JCA before it applies for any federal grants in the areas of American history or civics education in the years ahead.”

Republican Governor Kristi Noem on July 29 issued an executive order directing her administration’s Department of Education and all other state departments to “refrain from applying for any federal grants in history or civics until after the 2022 South Dakota legislative session.”

Noem singled out federal education proposals from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, as objectionable, in part because they referred favorably to The New York Times’ 1619 Project and to Ibram X. Kendi, an advocate of critical race theory, as “priorities.”

A variety of elected Republicans in other states have likewise criticized the federal proposals. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a July 16, 2021, official blog post addressed the controversy. Cardona, backing away, wrote, “Like invitational priorities in any grant competition, applicants are not required to address these priorities, and earn no additional points and gain no competitive advantage in the grant competition for addressing these priorities.”

President Biden on his first day in office disbanded the 1776 Commission that his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, had established. Trump had helped raise money for candidate Noem with a Sioux Falls fundraiser. Governor Noem in turn campaigned for Trump’s re-election last year, including hosting him at Mount Rushmore for a fireworks display, and supported his 1776 Commission.

Noem said in her executive order she expects to work with South Dakota lawmakers on measures that would do two things.

The first would “prohibit any curriculum that requires or encourages students to take positions against one another on the basis of race, sex, or the historical activity of members of a student’s race or sex.”

The second would “prevent schools from politicizing education by prohibiting any curriculum that requires students to protest or lobby during or after school.”

Noem also wrote a letter to each member of the state Board of Regents on the same general topic May 24. The governor-appointed regents, who oversee the state’s public universities, responded August 5 with a news release, a four-page explanation and statement and a general plan to disband diversity centers and establish “opportunity centers” on each campus.

The regents’ executive director, Brian Maher, and legal counsel Nathan Lukkes explained the plan to the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. Lukkes said each campus center would be different. He said the regents will consider those plans in October and might take further action in December.

Secretary Sanderson also appeared before the committee to explain the department’s action on a scheduled revision of the social studies standards for K-12 schools. People on the official work group said the department removed many references to Native American history that were added to the draft.

The governor-appointed state Board of Education Standards will hold four public hearings during the next year on the proposal. One of the appropriations members, Representative Steven Haugaard, suggested to Sanderson the removed references should be restored.

The appropriations lead chair, Senator Jean Hunhoff, delayed action by the committee in July on the letter of intent to higher education after she learned the federal program might be changing. On Wednesday, the committee wrangled over whether the letter was still relevant because the application deadline was just hours away.

An attempt to kill it failed 4-14, as Republican senators David Johnson and Jack Kolbeck sided with the panel’s two Democrats.

One of them, Representative Linda Duba, challenged the committee to ask why the letter was important to the legislators. She said the state Department of Education and the regents understood Governor Noem’s position and the decisions should be left for them. 

Representative Taffy Howard disagreed. “I don’t see this as micro-managing,” Howard said. She added, “There’s no harm in this. It’s simply a backstop.”

The other Democrat, Senator Reynold Nesiba, said the regents have a variety of controlling statutes and policies. Nesiba, an Augustana University faculty member, described the letter as “dangerous and bad” and said the letter would make the Legislature “an embarrassment to the rest of the country.”

“This is unnecessary. It’s pure politics over policy,” Nesiba said 

Kolbeck said the regents were taking steps to fulfill Noem’s goals. He acknowledged a letter could put some teeth into legislative policy but wanted to first see what the regents do at their October and December meetings. He said the Legislature could take action in the 2022 session. 

Johnson said the document would have no real effect and the regents were already addressing the issue. 

Senator Brock Greenfield said he brought the idea that the K-12 letter should be mirrored for higher education. Greenfield said time frames are often extended at the federal level and new programs can come at “the drop of a hat.” He doesn’t want the regents to be tied to any curriculum.

“Allow the Legislature to have that policy discussion come session,” Greenfield said. 

Representative Chris Karr, the panel’s co-chair, defended the letter: “I think it’s okay for us to lay out our expectations.” He said the governor and the regents have stated their expectations.

“We like what they’re doing,” Karr said. He added, “It (the letter) falls in line with what we’ve done with K-12.”  With that, Hunhoff stopped the discussion. The letter was approved 14-4. 

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