SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Nine months in, the conversation surrounding South Dakota’s social studies education content standards is still ongoing. The Dept. of Education (DOE) has appointed a new 15-member commission, handpicked by Governor Kristi Noem, members of her office and members of the DOE.

Noem’s office has also been outspoken about the perceptions surrounding the process, which entered the public eye in July 2021, with Noem on Thursday sharing a Facebook post by her communications director accusing the media of being untruthful about the process, captioned “Get the facts about our efforts to teach America’s true and honest history… not the media spin.”

With the social studies content standards review process now extended into an election year, KELOLAND News reached out to Noem’s rivals, Republican primary challenger Rep. Steven Haugaard (Sioux Falls), and Democratic opponent Rep. Jamie Smith (Sioux Falls), to get their take on the issue as a whole.

“I thought it was just a very poor choice,” Haugaard said of the initial move by the DOE to remove elements of Native American history and culture from the standards. “It was in those standards already. It made sense to have them there — somewhere along the line it was determined it was appropriate to include those references in our education standards — to come along and take them out is just simply offensive.”

In terms of the current 15-member group, Haugaard expressed that it was important to have a diverse range of people. However, he said “if you’re trying to reflect South Dakota standards, you want South Dakota people. I know several of those people [on the commission] and I have great respect for several of them. Others are picked because they’re potentially embedded allies of the governor.”

On whether or not this commission is the best possible group to set the standards, Haugaard thought for a moment before answering. “The answer to that would be… no,” he said. “The best possible group would be probably a larger group.”

Asked who he would have liked to see on the group, Haugaard had a definitive addition. “As far as some of the unique features we have in South Dakota, there are quite a few Hutterite colonies — that plug into and use public school teachers.”

Haugaard also expressed a wish that there was more input from some of the smallest schools in the state, such as those in the northwest corner of South Dakota, expressing that it is important that we create values in education that match both our large and small districts.

On the subject of transparency in the process, Haugaard also had some thoughts. “I think the best government is a clearly transparent government, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t have the door open.”

He also had a unique viewpoint on political bias in the process. “If you want to choose somebody that’s reflecting your personal goals, says it and let the public know why that’s important — if I can’t explain why I choose somebody for a position and defend that, then I probably shouldn’t be in that position of authority — we all have biases. Explain why you think it’s paramount to include a certain perspective,” said Haugaard.

Giving a final thought on the matter, Haugaard said this: “I think we as South Dakotans need to have respect for the fact that we have a large Native American population. We need to understand their culture and their background. We also need to see that woven into the fabric of what we’re doing in regard to our constitutional mandate to establish a standard and uniform system of education open to the public — if you can’t be transparent with every aspect of government, then you must have something to hide.”

Smith began the conversation about the process of the past nine months calling it ‘pure politics.’

“Unfortunately we are letting politics drive what our teachers are teaching,” Smith said, “and not letting our educators be the professional educators that they are.”

Smith, like Haugaard, is very familiar with several members of the new commission. “A couple of the people that I know that are on there are good people; I’m not sure they’re the people I’d put on a social studies curriculum list,” he said.

Smith seems to take issue with what he sees as politics interfering with education. “Our job should be to fund educators so they can do their job,” he said.

On the subject of alternate viewpoints in education, Smith said he doesn’t see it as ‘indoctrination’. “I don’t believe it’s indoctrination to look at history through the lenses of multiple sources,” he said. “That’s learning — looking at things from a different point of view shouldn’t be a threat to us.”

In a statement posted to Facebook and emailed to news agencies, Noem’s communications director noted that educators get 20% of the seats at the table in this new commission. Smith says that is not enough.

“It’s not enough educators,” he said. “Educators are the ones that are going to be required to teach this. It should be based upon best education practices of today — our educators are professionals and we need to look at our educators like this. I don’t think we’d have a wide group like this telling farmers how to do their job, and I don’t think we should do that with our educators.”

Smith said that if he was in the governor’s chair at the beginning of this process, things would have happened differently. “First of all, I wouldn’t bring divisive politics to the state of South Dakota in order to further my own political agenda,” he said. “I would work with the educators in the state to come up with a set of standards we all agree on.”

Smith also said that were it up to him, the current group would be larger. The first group was 44 members, now pared down to 15. “I would trust our professional educators and I would give them a greater voice in this process,” he said. “I would like to add to this group, and I would like it to be a stronger group of educators.”