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Noem orders delay of social studies standards

 Gov. Kristi Noem
Gov. Kristi Noem

Gov. Kristi Noem has ordered the Department of Education to delay revisions to social studies standards after acknowledging the agency "significantly" changed draft revisions submitted by a working group.

The DOEreduced the number of references to Native American and Oceti Sakowin history and culture, prompting outcry from Indigenous people and some educators. "Oceti Sakowin" refers to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes.

But it's unclear if Noem's delay is influenced by concerns about Native American content or critical race theory and action civics.

Noem's news release focused on the DOE's revisions and public response to the changes.

Noem has said South Dakotans should learn about Native American history and culture. But her spokesman did not say whether she agrees with the DOE's decision to reduce references to Native American history.

"DOE's changes increased balance to the proposed standards, but as the release says, 'it's clear there is more work to be done to get this right,'" said Ian Fury.

“Our focus remains the same: ensuring that South Dakota students learn a true and honest account of American and South Dakota history," the governor said in her news release.

Noem said the DOE should take up to a year to work on the standards as it hears from the public and Legislature.

Noem's announcement came after an Indigenous-led protest against the DOE revisions at the Capitol.

It also came hours after a National Review article accused Noem of caving to "woke leftists" in the DOE who worked with a contractor to silence conservative members of the working group.

"No comment," Fury said about whether Noem's announcement was influenced by the article.

Noem echoed arguments made in the article in a tweet from her campaign account: "In every state, radical education activists are scheming in order to impose CRT & Action Civics. I just froze the review of SD's K-12 social studies standards bc I have concerns. Restoring honest & true American & South Dakota history in our schools won't be easy but we must win."

That contrasts with the governor's news release, which makes no mention of CRT or action civics.

Members of the working group — mostly educators who worked with a company that received a $227,179 contract — have mixed reaction.

Paul Harens is a retired social studies teacher from Yankton.

"My instant reaction is if she's admitted there's a mistake, then she should allow the same people who did them the first time to come back and make some changes and not just hire a whole new crew," he said.

Harens said the working group put hours into revising the standards. He also wants to know who within the DOE made changes to the working group's recommendations.

Several people within the DOE contributed to the changes, said Deputy Secretary Mary Stadick Smith.

Changes to Native American and any other content was made to "broaden the lens to allow teaching about all cultures that make up South Dakota, to provide balance throughout the standards, to allow for progression of learning as students move from grade to grade, and to provide clarity and focus," she said.

Sherry Johnson is the education director for the Lake Traverse Reservation. She's worried about the delay and said the public hearings and revision process should continue as usual.

"Because the delay of it means she's not addressing it. And she's not addressing the concerns that are already there that are very prevalent on the comments," Johnson said. "I'm thinking the people are speaking and she's not wanting to hear what they're saying."

Hundreds of people have provided public comment and some criticize the DOE for removing Indigenous-related standards.

Harens said he thinks Noem ordered the delay due to public outcry, especially from Indigenous South Dakotans.

"I think it's because she's afraid of the Native reaction," he said. "I think she thought she could get away with it and nothing would happen. Well, too many people were angry, not only the Natives but a lot of other people."

Governor Noem also said she intends to ask the South Dakota Legislature to codify her executive order that denounces an antiracist scholar and the 1619 Project, bans schools from making students lobby or protest after school, and prohibits curriculum that makes or encourages students to take positions against others based on their race, sex, or the historical activity of their race or sex.

Noem said she will also ask the Legislature to ban critical race theory and action civics as the basis for instruction in South Dakota schools.

Johnson said Noem needs to define those topics since they mean different things to different people.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.