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Appropriators Hate Civics Education… and Federal Money Therefor!

Be still my beating heart: some South Dakota legislators actually want to turn down federal money!

Yesterday’s Joint Appropriations meeting included a passel of “letters of intent,” wherein the appropriators explains to state agencies how it intends them to spend the money they’ve been given. “While the guidance does not have the direct force of statutory law,” the letters of intent state, “it rests solidly on a long-standing tradition of Legislative-Executive relationships in South Dakota and it will be used by the Joint Appropriations Committee as one basis for the fiscal oversight of your agency and its continued funding.”

In what feels like a remarkable departure from tradition, one draft letter of intent tells the Department of Education not to seek federal money to support civics education. Evidently we’re now afraid the money coming from Uncle Sam (and Uncle Joe!) will preach communism and critical race theory:

The intent of JCA is that no applications whatsoever for federal grants in American history or civics education ought to be made until such time as the South Dakota Legislature has disposed of legislative proposals pertaining to these topics during its 2022 Legislative session. In order to help clarify the concerns behind this intent, this letter will itemize several specific grant types within this broader category.

The JCA anticipates that legislation barring certain practices often collectively referred to as “action civics” or “project-based civics” from South Dakota’s education system. The anticipated legislation would also bar from South Dakota’s education system training in, or curricula infused with, certain concepts often characterized individually or collectively as “Critical Race Theory.” It is the intent of JCA that applications for grants that would violate any of the prohibitions contained in this anticipated legislation should be eschewed until the South Dakota Legislature has had an opportunity to consider and dispose of legislative proposals pertaining to such topics during its 2022 session.

The JCA also notes that on April 19, 2021 the Biden administration issued a proposed rule that itemized priorities for grants in “American History and Civics Education.” It is the intent of the JCA that no grants whose priorities will be governed by the current version, or any future or finalized version, of this proposed rule shall be applied for until the South Dakota Legislature has had an opportunity to consider and dispose of legislative proposals pertaining to education in American history and civics during its 2022 session.

The JCA further notes that two bills currently pending in Congress, the Civics Secures Democracy Act and the Civics Learning Act, would fund numerous grants in American history and civics. It is the intent of the JCA that no grants funded under the Civics Secures Democracy Act or the Civics Learning Act, should they become law, shall be applied for until the South Dakota Legislature has had an opportunity to consider and dispose of legislative proposals pertaining to education in American history and civics during its 2022 session.

Please note that the specific examples cited above are offered in order to clarify, illuminate, and explicate the JCA’s intent. That intent reaches beyond those specific examples and includes an intent to bar any applications whatsoever by the South Dakota Department of Education, or any other agency or division of government in South Dakota, for federal grants in the areas of education in American history or civics.

Note as well that, in view of the complex and sensitive issues at play in current controversies and pending legislative proposals regarding the teaching of American history and civics, it is the intention of the JCA that, even after proposed legislation on these topics is acted upon in the 2022 South Dakota legislative session, the Department of Education should continue to consult with JCA before it applies for any federal grants in the areas of American history or civics education in the years ahead [Joint Appropriations Committee, draft letter of intent to Department of Education, May 2021].

Oh, for George’s sake (and Thomas’s, and James’s, and Alexander’s, and Ben’s…).

In her own half-hearted, slow-moving, and low-funded push for more civics education, Governor Kristi Noem has called for educators to give students more first-hand experience in civic engagement. One would think that helping students learn civics through action, through projects in their community, would be exactly what the Governor and every responsible educator and patriot would want:

Project-based civics of the sort mandated by the bill is most effective when it prioritizes youth voice and agency. One approach to project-based civics is Action Civics, which involves concrete action in the community and engaging with government officials to pursue actual solutions.

When taught well, Action Civics can result in extraordinary outcomes for our students and our communities. It can also help address disparities across income and race that have historically denied underserved students access to high-quality civic education.

Across the Commonwealth, we’re seeing prime examples of what committed educators and students can achieve through the kind of civic education mandated by the proposed legislation. In Lowell, the school district has partnered with Generation Citizen to adopt its curriculum and make Action Civics a graduation requirement for all students in high school.

Students in Lowell are identifying issues that affect their community and spearheading initiatives to bring about lasting change. Last year, they partnered with city officials to institute a successful gun buy-back program, set up a community food bank at the high school, and studied ways to combat the opioid epidemic in their city.

In taking tangible, informed civic action, these young people grow as leaders, refine key skills such as deliberation and collaboration, build coalitions with diverse stakeholders, acquire first-hand knowledge of the political process, and—most importantly—develop a profound sense that their words and deeds matter, and can make a difference.

Take it from former student Carla Duran Capellan: “As a high school senior, I didn’t believe that I could make a change in my community or in this country. That quickly changed. After three months of hard work, learning how to do research, how to advocate for change, and how to contact and convince people in power, I learned that everything is possible when you know how to advocate” [Alan Solomont and Arielle Jennings, “Training Citizens, One Student at a Time,” Commonwealth, 2018.03.03].

But propose active, practical learning like that, and conservatives turn “action civics” and “project-based civics” into code words to mong their fear that leftists will co-opt the schools and turn children into thoughtful little patriots who appreciate the value of community and government.

“Critical race theory” is another code phrase adopted by conservatives to avoid having conversations about the apartheid they are imposing to cling to their white privilege. Like Kristi Noem, our Appropriators in this letter of intent project the divisiveness sown by their party’s racist insurrectionist base onto fair-minded educators who are just trying to teach basic historical fact—that racism has shaped a lot of what this country is—and guide students toward forming a more perfect Union.

Conservatives find critical race theory and anti-racism in President Biden’s proposed “American History and Civics Education” priorities and go ape-bleep (I gratefully steal the term from the estimable Nina Totenberg). All the President’s Department of Education proposes is that teachers help make this country less racist and less stupid. Here are the criteria for projects in the areas of “incorporat[ing] racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning“:

(a) Take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history;

(b) Incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives and perspectives on the experience of individuals with disabilities;

(c) Encourage students to critically analyze the diverse perspectives of historical and contemporary media and its impacts;

(d) Support the creation of learning environments that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and experiences of all students; and

(e) Contribute to inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments [Federal Register, Proposed Rules, Vol. 86, No. 73, Monday, April 19, 2021, p. 20349].

The President’s civics proposal also prioritizes “promoting information literacy skills,” which evidently drives fear into the hearts of our conservative Appropriators, because heavens forfend that we teach kids to recognize total malarkey on the Internet; GOP apartheid depends on being able to lie unabashedly in the media and not face consequences. The info-literacy portion of the proposal offers these criteria:

(a) Evaluating sources and evidence using standards of proof;

(b) Understanding their own biases when reviewing information, as well as uncovering and recognizing bias in primary and secondary sources;

(c) Synthesizing information into cogent communications; and

(d) Understanding how inaccurate information may be used to manipulate individuals, and developing strategies to recognize accurate and inaccurate information [Federal Register, 2021.04.19, p. 20350].

Yeah, South Dakota will have none of that cultural conscientiousness or information literacy in its classrooms! Begone, filthy federal money trying to change us for the better!

The Civics Secures Democracy Act is just a bill, not a law; it hasn’t even had a hearing yet, so there’s no money for South Dakota’s DOE to apply for yet. But it has the co-sponsorship of Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas, who along with prime sponsor Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware says we shouldn’t be afraid of serious and instructive discussions of our checkered history:

CORNYN: Ours is a government of the people, by the people or for the people, as Lincoln said. But we can’t govern ourselves if we don’t have knowledge of our foundational principles or our history.

COONS: If we don’t train young people in civics and how to participate, then we can’t be that surprised when our political discourse breaks down.

…INSKEEP: You know, I’m glad you mentioned those disagreements because if you start talking about history, Senator Cornyn mentioned Texas’ independence from Mexico. That’s a story about which you can have many different perspectives. You could have more perspectives about the Confederacy and the Civil War. Under this proposal, what is the government supposed to do when somebody asks for a grant to study the Confederacy in a certain way, say?

CORNYN: Well, I think, you know, part of living in a free society and part of critical thinking is to have those conversations. We’re not perfect, and certainly our history reflects that. And there’s a lot in our history to be ashamed of, but hopefully to learn from, too.

…CORNYN: You know, this idea that we’re going to live our lives without finding somebody or something we disagree with is just a fantasy. And we need to disabuse young people at an early point in their lives that they’re going to encounter people different from themselves, with different experiences and different points of view, but that’s what it means to grow up and to mature and become more wise and to learn to live together and to try to build consensus, rather than just have separate lanes so that we all sort of operate or travel in [Steve Inskeep, “Civics Secures Democracy Act Proposes Grants to Support Civics Education,” NPR: Weekend Edition, 20210.04.14].

Our Appropriators evidently think that taking federal money from a bill with bipartisan support to promote more discussion and critical thinking will be bad for South Dakota.

The Civics Learning Act has all Democrats behind it. It proposes a measly $30M to support classroom civics projects that may include…

(A) hands-on civic engagement activities for teachers and students;

(B) activities about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights;

(C) before-school, during-school, after-school, and extracurricular activities;

(D) activities that include service learning and community service projects that are linked to school curriculum;

(E) activities that encourage and support student participation in school governance; and

(F) online and video game based learning [H.R. 400, 117th Congress, as drafted and introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, 2021.01.21].

To oppose such activities in the classroom, our Appropriators must either read words into these bills that aren’t there or fear or hate effective, hands-on, reality-based civics education.

But you have your orders, Department of Education: don’t go looking for any federal money to support civics education, not until our lunkhead legislators have a chance to paraphrase their right-wing newsletters into campaign speeches on the House and Senate floor in 2022 instead of solving real problems and fostering engaged, informed citizenship.


  1. O 2021-05-12 08:27

    Texas has gone one step further to gag Social Studies teachers from engaging in important engagement with students on issues of this nation:
    Will SD be far behind after the next legislative session?

    Reading skills and critical analysis of information has become THE critical issue for Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science. Reading is not just passively absorbing printed information and not just for the English class.

    Forgive my reductive simplicity: What is great about America is what she aspires to be. What is wrong is where those aspirations have fallen short. That should be the core of Social Studies education. Civics education should plot the pathways to achieving those aspirations.

  2. Donald Pay 2021-05-12 09:21

    Nothing is worse for civics education than recitation of lies and myths about the past and dry, droning clods who yammer on about how bills are passed. Not only does it encourage snoozing in class, but it leads to total disengagement or complete disaffection.

    Good education in various science fields usually has a strong dose of lab or field work. That’s why we build labs for chemistry, physics and biology in our high schools. A student is led through development of hypotheses and the messy details of testing those hypotheses. It’s hands on, participatory work. In other words, students are introduced to REAL SCIENCE. We encourage science fairs for students to do their own science projects. The same idea should pertain to civics education.

    I had one of those dry civics classes when I was a lad. The only thing I remember about it was how they lied to me about how government really works. Deadly boring, too. I would have love a participatory, student-centered civics class.

  3. O 2021-05-12 10:43

    Donald, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to lecture and story telling in the classroom. Students can learn a LOT from stories. Contrasting the (dull) procedure for how a bill becomes a law with an actual (exciting) story from a Senator or Representative about how that process gets thwarted or misdirected would be great in a civics class.

  4. leslie 2021-05-12 10:59

    “While the guidance does not have the direct force of statutory law,” the letters of intent state, “it rests solidly on a long-standing tradition of Legislative-Executive relationships in South Dakota and it will be used by the Joint Appropriations Committee….” A *Norm*, and Trump and McConnell have and will break every norm they encountered to usurp raw political power. That is a civics lesson.

    And speaking of lying about how government really works, AG Bill Barr baited and switch the nation’s perception about Trump’s 1st impeachment. The Ukraine quid pro quo.

    “Mueller’s report described roughly a dozen episodes of potential obstruction and made clear that Trump’s conduct met each of these elements of the crime in at least four of the episodes: 1.) Trump’s efforts to get White House Counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller; 2.) Trump’s attempts to get McGahn to lie about those efforts; 3.) Trump’s attempt to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to curtail Mueller’s investigation; and 4.) Trump’s efforts to discourage his former 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, from cooperating with the investigation.”

    *** “The stark lesson of the past four years is that the failure to hold a president to account only leads to more conduct for which the president should be held to account.***

    With Trump, there’s so much to investigate criminally that one special counsel can’t do it all. Could you imagine one prosecutor in charge of addressing Trump’s finances and taxes, his hush-money payments, obstruction of the Mueller investigation, the Ukraine scandal, and post-election misconduct, for starters?

    Trump has managed to avoid serious legal repercussions — not just during his four years as president, but throughout his life. Trump’s presidency has ended. So, too, must his ability to dodge the consequences.”

    That should be day one of SD’s enhanced civics lesson.

  5. Donald Pay 2021-05-12 11:23

    O, I agree with you. There has to be a good mix. But the stories you tell have to be based firmly in reality, not something like the Betsy Ross-type myth. The Betsy Ross myth, though, is a good example to learn about, as long as it doesn’t just stop with the myth, but shows how our history is often sidetracked into myth-making by people with an agenda.

  6. Mark Anderson 2021-05-12 13:00

    Well, the pub party is now the trump party, what can you say? Its actually astonishing how ignorant they’ve become. I’m glad to see the party devolving, to watch them canceling their members and continue to spew lie after lie. Your Senator Thune is just a cautious mess isn’t he. Every thoughtful member of their party is reduced to cowardliness these days. It is fun and painful to watch, simultaneously. I really hope Trump runs again, they don’t even talk about the continuing loss of support for their lying loser. Whistling past the graveyard is too positive of a terminology. Blind leading the blind is closer but not as tragic as the pubs really are these days.

  7. cibvet 2021-05-12 13:38

    Absolutely correct Donald pay!! ” history is often sidetracked into myth-making by people with an agenda.”

  8. Donald Pay 2021-05-12 15:59

    At any rate, I think the Joint Appropriations Committee are fools, but I also wonder if they make the right call, unwittingly as it may have come about.. These grants should NOT be funneled through the state, where the Dumb Squad, by which I mean the Legislature and the Governor, can take a dump on them and twist them into f^ckage, leaving students to be dished rotted slop. All we need is them to produce a Trumpist Little Red Book with a lot of lies and myth that students get to recite. The thought of it makes my bowels run. I have nothing against the Department of Ed or any of their Boards, and I think they might do a good job if left alone by the Dumb Squad, but that can’t be assured.

    Thus, I hope Districts apply for grants, siphon up all the money and leave the state the hell out of it.

  9. Arlo Blundt 2021-05-12 16:54

    Sieg Hiel!!! I’d hate to have to work in the Department of Education today. “Somebody call Joseph Goebbels, see if he’s available for a consultant contract on this Civics Curriculum thing.”

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-05-12 18:11

    O, gagging teachers makes me gag. Twitter bans on insurrectionists are not censorship: government banning teachers from getting students to discuss serious issues is.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-05-12 18:17

    But Republicans want to gag everyone and forbid any unorthodox utterance. John Tsitrian’s words today on Liz Cheney’s “being scorched for her repeated commitments to truth and independence of thought” seem fitting here: “Republicans have always celebrated the importance of individualism in personal and political affairs, yet they are virtually exiling her into what they stupidly think is obscurity for exercising just those qualities.”

    The GOP is making clear it stands for nothing but a cult of personality, to which honest and open discussion and debate are not only discomfiting but anathema. The JCA’s LOI to DOE (lol!) epitomizes that fear and loathing of open discussion anywhere, especially in schools. Their clampdown on civic discussion in schools belies their professed commitment to teaching kids civics. They are doing the opposite, teaching them obedience, conformity, and fascism.

  12. bearcreekbat 2021-05-12 18:30

    Obvious lies have become the foundation for Trumpist Republican policy proposals these days so is it any wonder that they might oppose teaching actual facts in school rather than whatever propaganda they think might enrich them?

    A recent “Big Lie” being spread by Dusty Johnson and local Trumpist Republicans is the canard that we need to end federal U/I payments because unemployed folks won’t work because they make enough money on U/I to discorage them from returning to work or accepting a new job. In a May 11, 2021, press release Johnson’s web site falsely claims, in effect, that current U/I law is written to permit conduct that must be stopped:

    “We need to stop paying people more to sit at home than to work. . . .

    . . . we should not be in the business of creating lucrative government dependency that makes it more beneficial to stay unemployed rather than return to work,”

    These claims, however, are a lie as a matter of law and fact. U/I law, including the federal supplemental benefit program, does not authorize “paying people more to sit at home than to work” or make “it more beneficial to stay unemployed rather than return to work.”

    John Tsitrian identified several actual studies in a recent SD Standard post that contradicts this Trumpist Republican assertion.

    In addition to the points John made, the simple fact is that existing law mandates that someone on U/I that either refuses to look for suitable work or refuses to accept available suitable work will lose his or her U/I benefits. There is no provision in law permitting the conduct that Republicans have lied to the public about. Under SD law, and across the nation, a person cannot, I repeat cannot, turn down suitable employment and still receive a dime in U/I benefits despite this repeated Republican lie.

    And then, of course, there is the Liz Cheney expulsion vote, which reaffirms the Trumpist Republican principle that the party is so invested in lies, any Republican daring to even acknowledge the truth must be chastised.

    Given these unfortunate realities and the current Trumpist Republican Governor’s efforts to emulate the former liar in chief, coupled with the Republican party’s lock on SD education law, it seems a fantasy to expect our State government to permit schools and educators to teach actual facts to students, rather than regurgitating self-serving propaganda designed to hide true motives and actions both in history and in the Trumpist Republican role in today’s state and federal government.

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