South Dakota didn’t plan to seek federal grants to schools that are targeted in legislators’ letter

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Its leader says the South Dakota Department of Education wasn’t intending to apply for federal grants in history and civics that are facing questions from Republican state lawmakers who run the Legislature’s appropriations process.

Secretary Tiffany Sanderson told KELOLAND News this week she hopes the lawmakers will talk with her in the coming months, as the state Board of Education Standards and the department begin the process of revising South Dakota’s social studies program during the next year.

The Joint Committee on Appropriations last week voted 16-1 along party lines to issue a letter of intent calling for the department to hold off on applying for federal funds for history and civics until after the Legislature finishes its 2022 regular session in late March.

The letter said, in part: “The intent of JCA is that no applications whatsoever for federal grants in American history or civics education ought to be made until such time as the South Dakota Legislature has disposed of legislative proposals pertaining to these topics during its 2022 Legislative session. In order to help clarify the concerns behind this intent, this letter will itemize several specific grant types within this broader category.

“The JCA anticipates legislation barring certain practices often collectively referred to as ‘action
civics’ or ‘project-based civics’ from South Dakota’s education system. The anticipated legislation
would also bar from South Dakota’s education system training in, or curricula infused with, certain
concepts often characterized individually or collectively as ‘Critical Race Theory,'” the letter continued.

”It is the intent of JCA that applications for grants that would violate any of the prohibitions contained in this anticipated legislation should be eschewed until the South Dakota Legislature has had an opportunity to consider and dispose of legislative proposals pertaining to such topics during its 2022 session.”

The letter goes on to specifically mention that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in April “issued a proposed rule that itemized priorities for grants in ‘American History and Civics Education,'” as well as two pieces of legislation currently pending in Congress, the Civics Secures Democracy Act and the Civics Learning Act.

The Civics Secures Democracy Act is a bipartisan bill introduced in both chambers of Congress. Its Senate sponsors are Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware and Republican John Cornyn of Texas. The Civics Learning Act is a U.S. House bill introduced by Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida, a Democrat, and co-sponsored by 50 House Democrats.

Two years ago, a variety of the state’s more-conservative lawmakers attempted to gain control over the state Department of Education when it was under the previous secretary, Ben Jones. Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, seemed to turn aside that effort. Some of those lawmakers currently serve on the appropriations panel.

The letter concluded, “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.”

No one from the state Education Department was asked to comment during the legislators’ discussion in the committee last week.

In an interview this week, Secretary Sanderson talked about how the letter fits into her department’s efforts.

“We did not have any intent to apply for the federal grant that’s open right now for civics and history education at the federal level. In fact, Dr. Jones who’s our state historian and myself are submitting comments during the public comment period on the U.S. Department of Education’s priorities for those grants,” she said. “Some of the activities that are encouraged through the grants don’t align with our expectations for learning in South Dakota and so we’ve made note of that through the public comment process.”

Asked whether the legislators’ letter surprised her, Sanderson paused for a few moments and replied, “At this point I haven’t had any legislators sit down to talk through what they’re thinking, and I’ve made the offer — let’s have some conversations in advance of the 2022 session, so that we can come together with any legislation or policy priorities that are important.”

Today — Thursday, May 19 — is the final day for comments to be accepted on the Biden administration’s proposed rule. The document lists two priorities:

Projects That Incorporate Racially, Ethnically, Culturally, and Linguistically Diverse Perspectives into Teaching and Learning… Under this priority, the applicants propose projects that incorporate teaching and learning practices that reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students create inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”

Promoting Information Literacy Skills… In its application, the applicants propose projects that describe how they will foster critical thinking and promote student engagement in civics education through professional development or other activities designed to support students in—

“(a) Evaluating sources and evidence using standards of proof;

“(b) Understanding their own biases when reviewing information, as well as uncovering and recognizing bias in primary and secondary sources;

“(c) Synthesizing information into cogent communications; and

“(d) Understanding how inaccurate information may be used to manipulate individuals, and developing strategies to recognize accurate and inaccurate information.”

The legislative committee’s action meanwhile has spurred a running debate on Twitter between Republican Representative Fred Deutsch, a long-time chiropractor who doesn’t serve on appropriations, and Democrat Representative Linda Duba, a long-time educator who cast the committee’s only vote against the letter.

Duba questioned the necessity of the appropriations letter. Deutsch replied, “Because it is courteous to all our colleagues to allow them to first study the issue.” Duba responded by focusing on the bipartisan federal legislation: “There is no issue. Read the bill. Senator John Cornin from Texas is the cosponsor. You realize he is a conservative. This is to promote civics and government education. Nothing more.” Deutsch retorted, “The vote was 16-1. And you were the 1. It seems 16 people believe there is an issue.”

Noem, who campaigned throughout the nation last year for the re-election of Republican President Donald Trump, has frequently criticized President Biden since the 2020 election. She recently tweeted from her political account, “Anti American curriculum like Critical Race Theory is teaching our kids to hate America. I’m leading on this issue and pushing back against the radical Left. Join me and sign our petition today!”

Responded Deutsch: “Governor @govkristinoem and the legislature are on the same page.”

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