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South Dakota state officials debate “critical race theory” in schools

A number of state officials, including Governor Kristi Noem, have indicated that they would like to ban “critical race theory” at the next possible opportunity.
Updated: May. 22, 2021 at 12:30 AM CDT
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PIERRE, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - “Critical race theory” has provoked passionate debate among state officials in South Dakota.

That conversation started in response to President Joe Biden revoking an executive order from the Trump administration, which banned the teaching of critical race theory in the federal government, and within entities that contract with the federal government.

The Biden administration further committed to giving preference in awarding education grants to those who incorporate critical race theory into their curriculum.

Despite its recent publicity, critical race theory has been around for several decades. It has gained more attention in recent years due to controversial works such as the ’1619 Project.’

Critical race theory seeks to teach American history in a way that elevates the role of race and racism, in the nation’s history, and the impact it still has on the nation today. It is also referred to as “project-based civics,” or “action civics.”

In a letter to South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson, the Joint Committee on Appropriations (JCA) asked Sanderson to delay the pursuit of any federal funds that could be tied to teaching critical race theory, until the state legislature had a chance to implement policies regarding critical race theory.

The SD Legislative Joint Appropriations committee sent a letter to Secretary Tiffany Sanderson...
The SD Legislative Joint Appropriations committee sent a letter to Secretary Tiffany Sanderson with the South Dakota Department of Education, asking her to not accept federal dollars that are linked to teaching "critical race theory." (page 1)(SD LRC)

“If you look at that letter, all it said was ‘okay Department of Education, don’t be taking any federal money until we as a legislature can meet,’” said State Sen. Ryan Maher (R-Isabel). Maher is a member of the Appropriations committee. “‘(Then we can) Determine which way we are going to go.’”

That letter received the backing of JCA members by a vote of 16 to 1. State Rep. Linda Duba (D- Sioux Falls) was the only vote against the letter.

State Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D- Sioux Falls), the only other Democratic member of the appropriations committee, missed the vote while attending to his day job.

“(The letter) is trying to ban applying for grants for things like ‘action civics.’” said Nesiba. “That could be having your class visit Pierre, or having your class write letters to legislators.”

Since receiving that letter, Secretary Sanderson has indicated to legislators that she shares their opinion on the issue.

SD Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson wrote a letter to the federal Department of...
SD Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson wrote a letter to the federal Department of Education, asking them to not tie federal grant money to the teaching of critical race theory. (page 1 of 2)(South Dakota Department of Education)

In a letter to the federal Department of Education, Sanderson says “it is not the job of the U.S. Department of Education to prioritize curricular models that promote classroom environments where discrimination is combatted with more discrimination. No student should be victimized or held responsible for actions by former generations.”

In addition to Sanderson, former South Dakota Education Secretary and current State Historian Dr. Ben Jones penned his own letter decrying critical race theory.

A spokesperson for the SD Department of Education said that the decision to submit the letters was in response to an open comment period being offered by the U.S. Department of Education, even though South Dakota had never intended to accept the grants in question. Neither Jones nor Sanderson were made available for comment.

The debate over the curriculum is not just happening in South Dakota, but in several state across the country. A number of Republican controlled states have already committed to banning critical race theory.

It is likely that South Dakota will also go down that path during the 2022 state legislative session.

“So many parents don’t even know this is coming down the pipe,” said Maher. “If anything, I guess its making people aware of what could potential be taught to your children.”

Senator Nesiba said that the appropriations committee would be better off leaving education decisions to the appropriate committees and authorities.

“Their focus is supposed to be on the budget,” said Nesiba. “While they are talking about critical race theory and trying to make policy about education, which is the purview of other committees and the Department of Education, teacher pay (in South Dakota) has fallen to 50th in the country. The Joint Committee on Appropriations should be focused on how we get teacher pay in South Dakota to be more competitive.”

Should a bill banning critical race theory passed the Republican dominated legislative chambers in 2022, it is likely that Governor Kristi Noem would sign it. Noem, a long time opponent to the idea, took to social media with a fifteen tweet thread, railing against projects that promote critical race theory. Noem committed to not allowing the nation’s history to become “political.”

During the 2021 legislative session, Noem signed a bill into law that allotted $900,000 to additional civics instruction in the state. However, it is still not clear what the exact details of that plan entail.

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