PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Give Governor Kristi Noem credit. She knows how to count votes.
The two men the governor recently appointed to the South Dakota Board of Education Standards made the difference Monday on adopting new academic standards for social studies.
The 5-2 vote allows the state Department of Education to move forward with replacing the 2015 standards.
The governor last year decided against re-appointing the board’s president, retired teacher Jacqueline Sly of Rapid City, and replaced her with retired dentist Richard Meyer of Rapid City. This year, the governor decided against re-appointing the board’s vice president, Aberdeen superintendent Becky Guffin, and replaced her with retired businessman Steve Perkins of Sioux Falls. The previous governor, Dennis Daugaard, had appointed Sly and Guffin in 2017.
On Monday, Meyer and Perkins joined Phyllis Heineman of Sioux Falls, Julie Westra of Sioux Falls and Linda Olsen of Dupree in voting for the proposal. Westra is the spouse of the governor’s commissioner of economic development, Steve Westra.
Voting against the proposal were the board’s current president, former Huron superintendent Terry Nebelsick, and Belle Fourche superintendent Steve Willard.
Noem’s office immediately issued a statement praising the board’s decision.
“Today is a wonderful day for the students in South Dakota. They are our future,” she said. “Now, they will be taught the best social studies education in the country, one that is a true accounting of our history. We want our children to have honest and factual classroom teaching so they can be engaged participants in our civil society for the rest of their lives.”
According to its director of learning and instruction, Shannon Malone, the state department received 1,295 comments from the public during the course of four public hearings that began last year. There were 121 in favor; 1,127 against; and 37 neutral.
All three of South Dakota’s major K-12 organizations — Associated School Boards, School Administrators of South Dakota, and the South Dakota Education Association representing teachers — opposed the proposal. So did all nine tribal governments.
The department formed a workgroup in 2021 that proposed standards, but the Republican governor set those aside after the first of several critical columns in the National Review and re-opened the process. The department then agreed to a $200,000 consulting contract with William Morrisey, who had previously worked at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Hillsdale College developed its 1776 Curriculum; Noem was the first candidate or elected official nationally to sign the 1776 Pledge; and President Donald Trump ordered creation of a 1776 commission that President Joe Biden later repealed.
An hour after the vote Monday, the governor posted on Twitter an image of a green chalk board with the words, “Our honest and factual social studies standards have passed.” Atop she wrote, “What a wonderful day for South Dakota kids!”
The board on Monday listened to about 80 minutes of testimony from proponents and 90 minutes of comments from opponents. State Education Secretary Joe Graves presented the rebuttal. As he prepared to speak, portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were brought out, too.
One of the opponents objected. Board president Nebelsick agreed. The portraits were removed. Graves said that similar portraits of the two presidents had hung in school classrooms for decades. “They did so, because children need heroes,” Graves said. He said they were later taken out of classrooms as part of reforms led by philosopher John Dewey.
The governor’s communications director, Ian Fury, is a 2015 Hillsdale graduate. He posted a message on Twitter after the pictures were taken away Monday: “The irony of the applause when the portraits of Washington and Lincoln were removed from the board hearing… That was precisely Sec. Graves’ point. These American icons have been removed from our classrooms, and that’s a shame.”
Graves stepped down as the Mitchell superintendent to accept the governor’s appointment as education secretary in January. He replaced Tiffany Sanderson, who resigned for an opportunity to be president at Lake Area Technical College in Watertown. Graves told the board members Monday they needed to adopt the proposed standards. “What is persuasive is the need to take a new direction,” he said.
During a five-minute break that followed, consultant Morrisey moved around the room, stopping to chat with Ben Jones, the state historian who served as the governor’s first secretary of education.
When the board returned, president Nebelsick led off the remarks before the vote. “There is no win-win in this process. The longer it’s gone on, it’s become obvious, it will be a lose-lose endeavor,” he said.
None of those involved had evil intent, according to Nebelsick. But he specifically disagreed with what was proposed for grades 1-3 and said he didn’t want to lose the focus on South Dakota history in grade 4.
“I think you can see what the conversation has led to,” board member Phyllis Heineman of Sioux Falls said, referring to the differences between former superintendents Graves and Nebelsick.
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” Willard, the Belle Fourche superintendent, said. He noted that two teachers from his school district were part of the workgroup that developed the first proposal that the governor had scrapped. “This has become way too divisive. This isn’t what South Dakotans are about,” Willard said.
Meyer, who replaced Sly on the board, was part of the 2021 workgroup, from which he resigned. He said Monday that students don’t know history. “I know the status quo, probably for me, isn’t good,” he said.
Perkins said the governor asked him what he thought about educational standards prior to his appointment this year. “It bothers me. They’re failing. What are we sentencing them to?” he said. He added that South Dakota has to do better. “We can’t have thirty percent failing,” Perkins said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do that. We’ve got to start.”
He recalled some of his own experiences.
“These are children. They are going to be with us. Their problems are going to be our problems in society,” Perkins said. “It’s not perfect, but in business, I never had a perfect solution to anything.”