Some South Dakota legislators are engaged in efforts to review and restrict some of the classroom curriculum taught at state universities and K through 12 schools.
Others say educators should set the standards and goals for the classroom - not politicians.
Some Republican leaders want to get involved with what students learn in civics and history classes. They want to delay any application for federal grants that deal with those academic areas. The same goes for developing civics and history curriculum in Kindergarten through 12 schools.
That gives lawmakers a chance to review and potentially restrict classroom content during next year’s legislative session.
Republican Spencer Gosch is the Speaker of the House. He wants the legislature to have a good grasp of what’s being taught in the state’s schools.
“My concerns are that we’ve got a federally mandated program that’s being rushed in when the legislature is away,” Gosch says. “My concerns are that we get an opportunity to properly vet what’s being pushed down into our schools.”
When asked about the mandated programs that are being pushed into schools, Gosch said grant opportunities come with strings. He wants lawmakers to review them.
Legislative leaders are picking up on a national effort to politicize the teaching of history and the role race has had in shaping U.S. policy and politics.
State lawmakers have outlined their concerns in a letter put before the Joint Committee on Appropriations. The letter will be used as a basis for the fiscal oversite of state agencies and their continued funding.
“I think it’s our job as elected officials—people that are elected by the taxpayers—to do their due diligence in evaluating what’s going on with the taxpayers' money and how it’s being spent,” Gosch says.
The letter points to a proposed rule for grant opportunities from the federal Department of Education. The department recommends, among other things, that classroom teaching should reflect the nation’s racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity.
The Biden Administration says those concepts are reflected in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and the 1619 Project. That project, created by the New York Times, centers around the consequences of slavery in U.S. History.
Governor Kristi Noem says the project misleads students into believing the country is evil.
“We do not have hatred and racism in our DNA,” Noem says. “We reject that full-heartedly. It is a lie.”
Noem says she wants to preserve honest and patriotic education that fosters a love of the country and a realistic picture of its virtues and challenges.
Others say educational standards should be set by educational professionals, not politicians.
“America has done some great great things,” Heinert says. “But, a history that is not known is bound to repeat itself.”
That’s Democratic State Senator Troy Heinert. He’s Sicangu Lakota and sits on the state Senate education committee.
He’s sponsored bills in the legislature to establish schools steeped in Oceti Sakowin culture. Heinert says it’s important to teach about policies that have and continue to keep Native American children from reaching their full potential. Heinert says it’s hard to move forward for society to move forward if history isn’t taught accurately.
“And it doesn’t have to be adversarial. But you cannot do this if you don’t know the accurate truth,” Heinert says.
Heinert says the recent discovery of children’s bodies at Indian Boarding schools is a prime example.
“You need to look no further than by what happened in Rosebud in bringing those children home from Carlisle, Pennsylvania," Heinert says. "We don’t have to all the way to Pennsylvania to find the native kids who never made it home. We can do that right here in South Dakota.”
The South Dakota teacher’s union says classroom curriculum should be determined by education professionals.
Sandra Waltman is with the South Dakota Education Association.
She says teachers want an honest education where all of history is taught—the good and bad—and have thoughtful conversations about them.
“If we look to how South Dakota does it, our legislators will see that we don’t have an issue here,” Waltman says. “Because our standards are determined by professional educators. There’s public input. Our local school boards are working with their educators to come up with the curriculum that is appropriate for our students.”
A group of about 50 people is participating in a review of South Dakota’s social studies standards. They spent 8 days in June examining standards for K through 12 curricula and will release their report on August 6. Statewide public comment will begin on September 20 in Aberdeen.