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Noem’s K-12 “Divisive Concepts” Bill Fails in Senate Education; Thought Control for Higher Ed Still Alive in Senate

Governor Kristi Noem continues to lie about “critical race theory” to busk for national attention. But after seeing her two bills peddling this disingenuous thought control watered down to the point that they don’t even mention “critical race theory,” Governor Noem saw half of her anti-CRT packet killed in committee.

Senate Education worked really hard on House Bill 1337, Noem’s bill that originally purported to “protect elementary and secondary students from political indoctrination” but was retitled in committee, “An Act to prevent the promotion of divisive concepts in elementary and secondary schools.” That renaming at least moved the bill a little closer to truth: Noem isn’t protecting children but gagging their teachers to stop anyone from presenting historical facts that don’t comport with Republican fantasy and fascism.

Senate Education slogged through two days of testimony from nine proponents (one of whom represented two groups) and seventeen opponents (one of whom spoke for three tribes and two activist groups). They tried refining the Governor’s typically sloppy language to win more votes. They amended the Governor’s strange line about the allegedly divisive concept of the racist underpinnings of “hard work ethic” to refer to “strong work ethic“. They changed the first banned “divisive concept” from “That any race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior” to “That an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.” most substantially (to the extent one can find substance in anything Kristi Noem writes), Senate Education removed two of the “divisive concepts” that Noem wants to ban from schools: “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin” and “With respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to America’s founding principles of liberty and equality, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.” That “discomfort” provision was the target of much criticism, including Sister Lynn Marie Welbig’s piercing testimony before House Education last month in which she asked how students or any socially responsible human could contemplate the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Holocaust, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other dark historical events and not feel discomfort or anguish.

But on Thursday morning, the Republicans still couldn’t muster the votes to move HB 1337 to the Senate. Crabby old Senator Jim Bolin (R-16/Canton), who as a former social studies teacher ought to know better, still stuck with the Governor’s effort to silence teachers and hide uncomfortable facts, and Republicans Wayne Steinhauer (R-9/Wall Lake) and Erin Tobin (R-21/Winner) stuck with him, but Republicans R. Blake Curd (R-12/Sioux Falls), V.J. Smith (R-7/Brookings), and Kyle Schoenfish (R-19/Scotland) defected to good sense and joined Senate Minority Leader Tory Heinert (D-26/Mission) in voting to kill HB 1337.

Senator Curd was the swing vote on Noem’s other “divisive concepts” ban, House Bill 1012. That was the only bill that actually mentioned “critical race theory”, at least in the form Noem released back in December, and even then, it only invoked “critical race theory” in the title but then didn’t mention any actual tenets of critical race theory in its provisions. Representative Drew Dennert (R-3/Aberdeen) erased that embarrassing and potentially bill-killing flaw in the House. House Education dramatically narrowed the HB 1012 to apply only to higher education and only to trainings and orientations, not classrooms and curricula. Senate Education further tinkered, removing a reference in Section 3 that suggested intrusion on course content. Senate Education also changed the work ethic reference from “hard” to “strong”, as in HB 1337, but did not change HB 1012’s claim to “protect” students or the reference to the superiority or inferiority of “any race” rather than “an individual’s race” as they did in HB 1337. HB 1012 never included Governor Noem’s effort to chill discussion of slavery, but it does include the “discomfort” clause, and while Senate Education struck that clause from HB 1337, they left it in HB 1012.

Yet Curd voted for HB 1012, allowing it to advance to the Senate on a 4–3 vote. The misalignment of amendments between HB 1012 and HB 1337 suggests Curd was less concerned with the particulars of the “divisive concepts” the Governor is trying to ban and more interested in where, at what level, we are practicing thought control. But even there, it seems odd that a legislator who would vote against thought control in the classrooms of children would vote for thought control in college orientations and trainings for adult students and employees. If there were any truth to the Governor’s claims that radical leftists (we still haven’t seen the list of academics who must be run out of town) are indoctrinating our fragile youth, I would think our tender K-12 students would be more vulnerable to such indoctrination than the somewhat sturdier grown-ups at our universities and vo-techs, and that the radical leftists would find it far easier to destroy America through the powerful platform of their classrooms, where they may indoctrinate students day after day, then in occasional, one-off orientations and trainings where students face far less homework and accountability and pay far less attention than they do in classes they have to pass. If Senator Curd thinks college students need protection with HB 1012, he ought to think minor children need even more protection with HB 1337.

I’d like to believe that Senator Curd has actually talked with his Sioux Falls K-12 teachers and found them mostly devoid of, or at least too darn busy to preach, activist ideology. Maybe Senator Curd’s distrust of academia extends only to those darn college professors… and even there, he recognizes we can’t trample academic freedom and thus can only natter around the edges, banning the colleges from bringing diversity consultants to conduct trainings outside of the classroom.

But let’s not mistake Senator Curd for a great friend of academic freedom. On the record, he says he voted against HB 1337 because he thinks the state Secretary of Education and Board of Education Standards already have enough legal authority to impose all the thought control they want. Curd says the Board of Education Standards is “the appropriate place for this to be addressed”; why he does not say that the Board of Regents is the appropriate place for “divisive concepts” in higher education to be addressed remains unclear.

HB 1012 awaits the full Senate’s attention. The South Dakota Education Association warns that we may not have seen the last of HB 1337: they smell a smokeout coming. HB 1337 could still make it to the Senate floor, and I have a bad feeling there are just enough subservient and misinformed Republicans who would vote for this chilling bill and send it to the House for reconciliation.

But on the good side, Noem’s push for thought control in our schools has not gained momentum. At every step of the Legislative process, it has lost momentum, suggesting that “critical race theory” and “divisive concepts” aren’t really a big deal for anyone in Pierre who’s not running for President.


  1. David Newquist 2022-03-04 09:35

    Even if HB 1012 is defeated, it has already added to the state’s reputation for a grossly defective higher education system. The SmartAsset organization has ranked the system as the worst in the nation. A number of scholarly organizations have branded it as a place unfit to practice scholarship. Its reputation took a serious hit last spring when Dr, Downs was fired from NSU apparently for attempting to implement some diversity measures. The faculty there was criticized by scholarly organizations for not demanding some accountability for that action. But then it was pointed out to the organizations that for 40 years the system had operated under a collective bargaining contract through which faculty could address concerns about the status of their profession, But last year the state passed a law which bans faculty unions and collective bargaining and canceled the contract through which it can enforce academic freedom and scholarly enquiry. One professor noted that professors in South Dakota operate under the same political conditions as professors in China. And that has raised some furor about the accrediting agencies not doing their jobs in assessing the quality of freedom and purpose that accreditation is supposed to signify. The South Dakota system has the reputation for being a diploma mill in the business of peddling junk degrees. The faculty that does not pursue accountability for the conditions under which it works is fully complicit. Students will find that a degree from a South Dakota university is an object of ridicule.

  2. Mark Anderson 2022-03-04 10:47

    I’m a coyote trickster Mr, Newquist. Ridicule doesn’t bother me. Dummies dumbing down higher education is a last desperate attempt in a game they have already lost, a long… long, time ago.

  3. John 2022-03-04 14:27

    It is beyond me how the “don’t hurt my feelings” proposal would EVER pass the strict scrutiny of a First Amendment challenge.
    It’s all subjective; lacking any objective rigor, mileposts, or enforceable standards.

    Oh how the SD governor and legislators waste our time and money.

  4. Arlo Blundt 2022-03-04 19:16

    Yes, John and Mark are correct….it is a huge, expensive, and thoughtless exercise in futility. How much did all this legislative dithering cost?? The Legislature can’t erect a barrier to intellectual inquiry and expect both teachers and students to comply like robots. Noem’s is a very sterile vision of the process of intellectual growth and the development of critical thinking, which we obviously need more of in both secondary and college programs.

  5. Donald Pay 2022-03-04 21:08

    Cory, I think most school districts already have adopted policy on teaching what might be considered controversial issues. I don’t think new statutes are needed. I looked up the Rapid City Area Schools’ Policy for teaching about controversial subjects. When I was on the school board I thought it was a pretty darn good way to handle such things. Take a look at it and see what you think.

    Here is the RCAS Policy on academic freedom:

    I went to high school during the Vietnam War years, a divisive time in this country. I recall a number of courses where my classes discussed issues involved in the war. I had a Current Events course that discussed the war about every week. Teachers at Lincoln High way back then seemed to know how to lead discussions on such topics. Kids in high school need to figure out how to discuss controversial issues in a civil way. Of course, discussions must be appropriate to the maturity of the students, but that is best left to the teachers, who know their students best.

  6. DaveFN 2022-03-04 23:44

    David Newquist

    I have never ceased to be amazed at how many faculty released from their appointments owing to administrative prerogatives and privilege in the South Dakota university system have gone on to be eminently successful elsewhere, whether as academics or in industry or government positions.

    South Dakota has a very low tolerance for excellence. Some of the best and brightest are apparently a threat to the status quo. and must be let go. We have to ask what we are left with if the talented and successful have gone elsewhere, although the answer is clear.

    And the stain on our reputation gets around.

  7. John C Dale 2022-03-05 08:26

    When racists screem “racism!” at CRT, they have four fingers pointing back at themselves.

    CRT is lame.

    Give parents the choice to home school and create a corps of teachers who get paid by parental groups pooling money who control the dynamics of curriculum.

    Watch how fast the best teachers get rich, as opposed to what they are doing now, which is administering psychoactive drugs to toddlers while herding malnourished 3′ cats.

    K-12 is a wreck and should be completely defunded immediately while we’re changing over parts of the economy to hydrogen injected Toyota internal combustion powered vehicles.

  8. mike from iowa 2022-03-05 08:53

    Don’t schools start their days with the controversial Pledge of Allegiance?

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