PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The governor’s ever-changing proposal to protect K-12 students in South Dakota’s public schools from ‘divisive concepts’ has been blocked. The Senate Education Committee voted 4-3 Thursday to kill HB 1337.
The panel’s chairman, Senator Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, said state law already allows the state secretary of education and the state Board of Education Standards to set direction for what’s taught in South Dakota public schools.
Senator Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford, wanted the committee to recommend passage of its amended version of the bill. He said it should be in the best possible shape, in case another senator might try to force the committee to release it for possible action by the full Senate.
Senate Democrat leader Troy Heinert of Mission, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said some parts of the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings about tribal ways that the state Department of Education wants schools to teach would conflict with some of the language that Governor Kristi Noem had proposed in the bill. He asked the other senators to think about a question: “How divisive has this conversation been?”
The vote came after more than three hours of testimony and questions over the course of two days.
Stopping the bill were senators V.J. Smith, R-Brookings; Kyle Schoenfish, R-Scotland; Heinert and Curd, while senators Jim Bolin, R-Canton; Erin Tobin, R-Winner; and Steinhauer wanted the Senate to debate it.
The title, ‘An Act to to protect elementary and secondary students from political indoctrination” remains on the LRC website, although Bolin had amended it Tuesday to be, ‘An Act to prevent the promotion of divisive concepts in elementary and secondary schools.’
The Republican governor signaled her intent in her State of the State speech on the first day of the 2022 legislative session. “In state after state, school after school, children are being exposed to radical political ideologies like Critical Race Theory. We are not going to let that happen in South Dakota,” Noem said.
Last year the governor also sent letters to the state Board of Regents and issued an executive order on the topic. The regents followed her direction with a formal ‘Opportunity for All’ statement and directed the six public universities to open ‘opportunity centers’ and close diversity offices.
Lobbyists from associations representing teachers, school administrators and school districts pointed the senators Thursday to South Dakota’s codes of ethics for teachers and administrators, as well as the state disciplinary boards that oversee them, arguing there’s a system already in law to deal with such issues. “That’s a pretty serious deal, to lose your license to teach in South Dakota,” said Diana Miller, who represents the large school group.
But Allen Cambon, a policy advisor to the governor, said that those haven’t prevented “divisive” concepts from being taught in South Dakota schools. He described the governor’s bill as “a strong message” against what he said was “beginning to see signs of in South Dakota.” Cambon said the bill’s wording was based on what’s been proposed in other states and the governor’s staff spoke with “a handful of (school) superintendents” about it.
Mitch Richter, a former Republican legislator who now lobbies for many of South Dakota’s school districts, said there was a discussion with the governor’s office about the proposed law. “There was no explanation, no answer, to what we could not teach,” Richter said, calling it “a wedge issue.”
At Steinhauer’s suggestion, the committee removed two of the divisive concepts listed. They were:
“An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, color, religion, ethnicity or national origin” and “With respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to America’s founding principles of liberty and equality, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
Heinert agreed those should come out. “But there are far more problems in the entire bill,” he said.
Steinhauer responded, “I didn’t really want to stir this pot, but now it’s stirred,” adding that the bill needed to be in the best possible form because a senator might try to revive it.
Tobin said she wanted to have discussions “personally” with her children about the concepts in the bill rather than have them taught in schools. She reported receiving emails from teachers outside her legislative district about the bill that “were not kind” and said that, “as a mom of young kids.” she was inclined to send the bill to the Senate for debate.
Smith clearly opposed it. “I look at this frankly as a mess,” he said.
Curd said the governor already has the state Department of Education working on revised standards on social studies for South Dakota schools. The state Board of Education Standards will hold four public hearings in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen and Pierre after they’re formally proposed. He noted the governor appoints the secretary who leads the department and the board’s members.
“That’s the appropriate place for this to be addressed,” Curd said.
Schoenfish noted that the bill referred to “a state agency” and that would affect all of state government, including the Legislature. He wondered whether lawmakers wanted the restriction in their “Red Book” of rules because then “we’re going to have to be really careful in our debates.”
Schoenfish questioned why the governor’s bill would have applied only to public schools. He said the Legislature has for years allowed insurance providers to avoid part of their state tax by contributing the money to a state-sanctioned K-12 scholarship program for private schools. Noem recently signed into law an expansion of the total amount the program can accept.
Curd, who lost to Noem in the 2010 Republican primary for the U.S. House nomination, questioned Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson whether the listed concepts were being taught in South Dakota’s schools.
“It is not a systemic problem,” Sanderson answered, but added there have been some specific instances. Curd asked whether she, in her official role as department secretary, had formally dealt with those. Sanderson said she talked with school officials but didn’t go farther. “Not in written form, no,” she said.
Curd suggested to Sanderson that the concepts could be addressed by the state department and state board. “You could certainly drive the process and have that included in the content standards?” he said. “Yes,” she replied.
The Senate committee had voted 4-3 Tuesday to recommend passage of a related bill, HB 1012, for South Dakota’s public universities and technical colleges. Curd voted for that one, saying it deserved debate by the full body. But Smith described it Thursday as “the Seinfeld bill” — a reference to the TV comedy series — “It doesn’t say anything.”
Smith said the K-12 bill was ripe for legal conflicts, such as a teacher explaining evolution theory and a “fundamentalist” student not accepting it. “And then where are we?”
Heinert shared with the committee an email he received last year that went so far as to criticize his attire. “So racism is alive and well in this state,” he said, and children need to be prepared. “It is coming,” he said.
Steinhauer answered that racism is “despicable” but said the bill was an attempt to avoid further promotion of it. “You folks deserve a better chance than you’ve been given,” he told Heinert.