Last fall, after the Department of Education’s heavy-handed whitewashing of K-12 social studies standards drafted by a 46-member volunteer workgroup, and after Governor Kristi Noem responded to out-of state right-wing critics by suspending the standards drafting process, standards workgroup member and retired Yankton High School teacher and debate coach Paul Harens expressed his sense that somebody was trying to push the recommendations of Donald Trump’s highly politicized 1776 commission onto South Dakota’s K-12 curriculum:
In May, Gov. Kristi Noem signed the “1776 Pledge to Save Our Schools,” which is based on recommendations from former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission report, which has been criticized by the American Historical Association as hasty, simplistic and reliant at times on “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” President Joe Biden had revoked the report on his first day in office in January.
Noem reportedly said it offered “real promise.”
…The changes are consistent with the 1776 project, which, when she made the proclamation, Noem said would be optional, he said.
“It’s basically the 1776 project or comments that (Noem) has made,” Harens said. “Somebody had to tell the Department of Education to make those changes and it wasn’t somebody in the Department of Education. I don’t know who it was, but I can make a guess.”
His efforts to find out who wrote the changes have led nowhere, Harens said.
“If you read through the 1776 project, it basically whitewashes history — and I do mean white,” he said. “The 1776 project doesn’t want to talk about anything bad that’s happening — just the positives of history and the people involved. They kind of skip over slavery. They massively skip over the indigenous population in the United States” [Cora Van Olson, “Retired YHS Teacher Talks About Social Studies Standards Controversy,” Yankton Press & Dakotan, 2021.09.28].
It appears my friend Paul was onto something.
One of the 203 people who applied in November to serve on the redo standards workgroup received an email after applying saying the new commission would be named at the end of 2021. The Governor did not name the new, much smaller, more politically loaded standards “commission” until last week, almost four months after the intended start date. In March, the applicant did receive an invitation to interview from the Governor’s executive assistant Morgan Ness. The invitation told the applicant who would be conducting the interview:
The interview would be with Allen Cambon from the Governor’s Office, Dr. Ben Jones with the State Historical Society, and Professor William Morrisey from Hillsdale College. Lt. Governor Rhoden and Deputy Chief of Staff will possibly be on the call also [Morgan Ness, Office of Governor Kristi Noem, email to applicant for “Social Revision Commission”, March 2022].
Allen Cambon is the policy advisor Governor Noem hired from D.C. in October 2020, at the same time she hired Mark Miller from Florida to serve as her general counsel. Miller is now Noem’s chief of staff and chairman of the redo standards commission. Cambon’s focus in D.C. for Louisiana Congressman Ralph Abraham was agriculture. He has a B.A. in history.
Dr. Ben Jones was Noem’s first Education Secretary; named to the position temporarily in December 2018, he hung around in the office for about two years. Jones has been involved with two other conservatives in organizing a lecture series at DSU that launched last fall with a conservative speaker. He has a Ph.D. in history and has taught college but not K-12 social studies. Jones is a member of the redo standards commission.
The applicant who received this invitation to interview says the interviewers informed the applicant that the draft standards were already being created at Hillsdale College. The applicant learned that the standards-revision commission would meet and review the standards as a whole instead of reviewing them by grade level and/or subject. The commission would be able to give some input but would have no major authority to change the standards developed under Professor Morrisey’s direction by Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn chaired Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which Trump named to counter the 1619 Project with proposals for more “patriotic” education. Hillsdale vice-president of D.C. operations Matthew Spalding executively directed the 1776 Commission. The commission churned out a widely ridiculed report in the last days of the Trump Administration, then was dissolved on the first day of President Joe Biden’s Administration.
Yet commission members met on May 24, 2021, at Hillsdale’s D.C. campus and issued a statement on Constitution Day in September 2021 saying it continues to operate “in a private capacity. and Hillsdale College’s K-12 education department developed what Hillsdale calls the 1776 Curriculum. That curriculum is available for free on the Hillsdale College website. According to Hillsdale, curriculum on the American founding, the Civil War, and civics are available; Hillsdale plans to release lessons for the rest of American history this year.
Of course, Professor Morrisey and Hillsdale College can’t satisfy the charge of the standards revision commission just by completing their 1776 curriculum and dumping their thousands of pages on us. Hillsdale’s lesson pile so far is all U.S. history and civics, while South Dakota’s K-12 social studies standards encompass geography, economics, and South Dakota history. State law requires instruction in the South Dakota Constitution, which doesn’t leap out from Hillsdale’s outline.
The 1776 Curriculum itself is not an explicit and comprehensive list of social studies standards. Complicating any plan Noem and Hillsdale may have to impose this specific curriculum on South Dakota schools is South Dakota Codified Law 13-1-12.1, which allows the state Board of Education Standards to establish school standards but does not allow the Board “to require the use of specifically designated curriculum or methods of instruction.” But Hillsdale can write its standards to align with its curriculum, and that alignment will certainly make adopting the Hillsdale lessons as the easiest path.
But it seems that curriculum won’t be confidential for long, since what an applicant heard in the standards-revision committee interview process and the participation of a Hillsdale College professor emeritus in interviewing those commission members support what my friend Paul saw coming last fall: the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum will be coming to a South Dakota public school near you in the future, courtesy of Governor Kristi Noem. Instead of following the traditional pattern of having South Dakota teachers volunteer to produce their own curriculum standards, the Noem Administration appears to have handpicked a political panel to rubber-stamp her choice of standards wrapped around a curriculum driven by conservative political ideology and developed by a conservative Michigan college to serve as the template for South Dakota students’ social studies education.