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Social studies standards accepted despite opposition

The state Board of Education Standards pictured during their Rapid City meeting.
C.J. Keene
The state Board of Education Standards pictured during their Rapid City meeting.

After months of debate, a state board has voted to approve new proposed social studies standards for South Dakota schools.

Monday was the final public comment hearing. The embattled standards proposal sailed to passage on a 5-2 vote by the South Dakota Board of Education Standards.

Critics of the standards raised concerns over age-appropriateness of topics, a heavy focus on memorization, and lack of emphasis on Native American history. Supporters argued the standards will increase students' understanding of government structure and history and are free from political agendas.

From the onset, the proposal was panned by the state’s education community. That includes Erica Boomsma, a recipient of the South Dakota Teacher of the Year award.

“Hundreds of letters from South Dakotans testifying against these standards," Boomsma said. "Experts in the fields of education, south Dakota educational associations, organizations, countless administrators, and the most difficult to swallow, South Dakota teachers have been left out. That is never how we operated here. So what do you say when the majority of people are not in favor of these standards? You can ignore the people and continue on your way, or you can practice one of the most difficult virtues democracy demands from us – the virtue of restraint.”

Testimony like that swayed some board members. Board president Terry Nebelsick announced his opposition at the end of the hearing in Pierre.

“By statute these hearings are put in place to determine if the citizens of South Dakota have any concerns with the standards recommended by the revision committee, that the statute indicates should be made up of South Dakota educators and professionals," Nebelsick said. "These hearings should not be a debate with point-counterpoint. There is no win-win in this process. The longer it's gone on it’s become obvious it will become a lose-lose endeavor.”

Critics of the standards raised several concerns throughout the process, including age-appropriateness of topics, a heavy focus on memorization, and broad exclusion of subjects included in the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings.

The board received nearly 1,300 public comments on the standards. More than 1,100 of those were negative, compared to 121 positive.

Despite the opposition, board member Phylis Heineman was unmoved.

“I have learned personally so much going through all of this," Heineman said. "It has been – I found these standards very exciting. When I read through some of this information – first of all I gotta thank the governor for starting the conversation.”

Several people also testified in favor of the new standards Monday, with many saying the previous standards are lacking.

Two Republican state lawmakers. Rep. Bethany Soye of Sioux Falls and Rep. Fred Deutsch of Florence, testified in support of the new standards. Deutsch said they could become a model for other states.

Within minutes of passage, a representative from Gov. Krisi Noem’s office sent a release applauding the passage of the standards.

“Today is a wonderful day for the students in South Dakota. They are our future,” Noem said. “Now, they will be taught the best social studies education in the country, one that is a true accounting of our history. We want our children to have honest and factual classroom teaching so they can be engaged participants in our civil society for the rest of their lives.”

Implementation of the new standards will begin in June and take place over the next two years.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture