PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — State lawmakers from opposite sides of South Dakota’s battle over teaching divisive issues such as Critical Race Theory are raising questions about the Noem administration’s handling of a program intended for improving civics education in K-12 schools.

A July 15 letter from the state Department of Education shows that a majority of the schools that applied for civics grants were turned down.

Those decisions by reviewers from the department came after Governor Kristi Noem had called for more focus on civics education in her January 2021 State of the State speech opening the Legislature.

State Representative Randy Gross, an Elkton Republican, had led the fight in the House to get $900,000 for improving civics education. The Republican governor had made civics education a point of emphasis in her State of the State address opening the 2021 legislative session.

The House approved the House Appropriations Committee’s bill 63-5, but the Senate Appropriations Committee later killed it 6-1. The $900,000 however was eventually budgeted.

Gross now chairs the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee that is looking into the civics grants. A state DOE official, Shannon Malone, told the committee Wednesday that six of 16 applicants received grants in August 2021. During the second round in October 2021, she said three of nine did.

According to Malone, $95,000 was the amount that the department decided should be spent on the grants. She said the remaining $805,000 will be used for other purposes connected to the department’s current project of revising South Dakota’s academic content standards for social studies.

Malone said the proposed changes to the social studies standards will be released for public review by mid-August. The state Board of Education Standards plans to begin the first of four public hearings on them in September.

Districts that received civics grants were Dell Rapids, Madison, Mitchell, McIntosh, Chamberlain, Vermillion, West Central, Arlington and Deubrook.

Districts that were turned down were Brookings, Lake Preston, Sioux Falls, De Smet, Estelline, McGovern Middle School (Sioux Falls), Alcester-Hudson, Tri-Valley, Mobridge, Black Hills Special Services Cooperative, Oglala Lakota, Estelline, Smee, Mitchell and Bowdle.

West Central was refused in the first round but was accepted the second round. Estelline was refused both rounds.

Malone said three of the grants have been fully awarded. She said the six others have been amended to reflect the governor’s divisive-concepts ban issued by executive order to the department on April 5, 2022.

The department’s deputy secretary, Mary Stadick Smith, accompanied Malone before the committee Wednesday. Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, asked for a specific example of a work or an author that would be specifically in violation of the governor’s order.

“I don’t think it’s that easy,” deputy secretary Smith replied. “What is a divisive concept? That is the lens we need to look through things.”

Responded Nesiba, “I don’t think it’s very clear what a divisive concept is.” He suggested the department keep a list of books and authors that are divisive. He asked for one author or book or document that was in violation of the order to give clarity on what the government is banning.

Smith said local school boards are autonomous and make local decisions. She described curriculum choices “as a local decision” but said the department can affect those choices through academic content standards. Nesiba said what’s out of bounds wasn’t clear. “I would like to see that list,” Nesiba said.

Malone and Smith said the department had submitted its anti-CRT/anti-divisive concepts report to the governor by the July 1 deadline set in the governor’s order.

Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican who supports Noem’s efforts on the issue, asked the department for a copy of the July 1 report and any legislation or changes that might be needed. “I really like the accountability measure that’s built into the governor’s executive order,” Peterson said.

Smith said the report was provided to the governor’s office. “I believe at this time it is an internal document but I will follow up and see if we can get that to you,” Smith said. Peterson noted that she and the governor signed the 1776 Action group’s pledge in April 2021.

Peterson said she has “some significant concerns” that the three completed grants weren’t in alignment with the governor’s order. She referred to various examples of what she described as code words for CRT and divisive concepts that she found in the applications for Mitchell, Madison and Dell Rapids.

Malone responded that the department will review progress reports from the three in the coming weeks and can provide guidance or action moving forward. Peterson said a National Council for the Social Studies conference attended by Madison and Dell Rapids was in conflict with Noem’s order and “the Legislature’s general idea that we don’t want to fund” CRT and action civics concepts.

“It’s disturbing than to find this information that was not acceptable last summer,” Peterson said, suggesting “a conversation off-line” so that department money doesn’t flow to such efforts in the future.

Peterson served on and then resigned from the department’s social-studies revision group whose recommendations were later adjusted by the department and then were scrapped altogether at the governor’s direction. Noem had a smaller replacement group named that is coming up with different proposed revisions.

Noem recently decided against reappointing the state board’s president, former teacher and legislator Jacqueline Sly of Rapid City, and replaced her with Rich Meyer of Rapid City, who had also served on the original social-studies revision group before resigning.

Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that appropriators took a position last summer against CRT. His other current concern, he said, is the state board’s public hearing process that is the next step.

“What public’s showing up?” Karr asked, “I just think there needs to be a little bit more pro-active stance on this.” He asked what more the department is doing. Smith said the content standards-revision process is laid out in state law. “We try to reach out and get public feedback,” she said, but added that the results have varied. Karr said the department should have a screening process that weeds out concepts that have already been addressed. 

Countered Nesiba, a faculty member at Augustana University, “We’re trying to ban a bogey-man.” He repeated his question about specific authors, books and works. Smith said the department proposes content standards; the state board decides on the guide-rails for what students should be able to do and know; and local school boards make the decisions to get students to that point.

“When you talk about books specifically, that is something not in the content standards,” Smith said.

Nesiba said the department’s inability to say what is banned put South Dakota teachers in a dangerous position that chills discussion.

Senator Kyle Schoenfish, a Scotland Republican, asked whether the governor’s order had reconfigured time spent on department activities. Smith said the result was that “across the department quite a bit of time and energy” went into the review that was ordered.  

Peterson referred to a recent US Supreme Court ruling that private schools can’t be prohibited from receiving public funding. The South Dakota Constitution contains that prohibition, known as the Blaine amendment. Peterson asked whether the civics-grant application’s specific reference to only public schools was out of compliance. She said the application’s wording should be updated.  

At A Glance

The civics-education excerpt from Governor Noem’s 2021 State of State speech:

“This includes improving the civic education of our kids. Students should be taught our nation’s history and all that makes America unique. They should see first-hand the importance of civic engagement. And they should have robust discussions in the classroom so they can develop critical thinking skills.   

“Our young people need more experience engaging with elected officials and practicing the art of debate. It is also our responsibility to show them how government works.  

“Here’s how: I have tasked my administration with creating instructional materials and classroom resources on America’s founding, our nation’s history, and the state’s history. We must also do a better job educating teachers on these three subjects. Through all of this, our common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.”