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Educators Respond To Noem's Crusade Against Critical Race Theory

Children stand for the Pledge of Allegiance prior to the start of the school day.

Governor Kristi Noem has a lead role in a national conservative effort to ban public schools and universities from teaching certain concepts about race and racism. 

Governor Noem sent a letter to the state Board of Regents about a month ago - a day prior to the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. Noem asked the board that oversees the state’s six public universities to investigate any use of what’s called Critical Race Theory. It’s a theory used to understand how and why racial disparities still exist. 

Noem wants the board to investigate whether state funds are used for such teaching.  

“Critical Race Theory is not appropriate for our kids to learn and to have in our school systems. We want to have our honest history, our real history, our patriotic history to be taught to our kids so that we can continue to protect America.” 

South Dakota academic researchers who use Critical Race Theory say it is not a history curriculum. 

Stacey Morgan has been teaching 3rd and 4th grade in Mitchell for decades. She’s surprised this is getting so much attention.  

“That’s definitely not what is being taught in schools. What we are trying to teach kids, in general, is to be kind to each other. And we do anti-bullying things. And teaching children to treat each other the way they would want to be treated. But we don’t specifically talk about race, or define our students into different races or anything.” 

Noem says students should not be taught the country’s foundations were defined by race and slavery.  

She has proposed a $900,000 fund to teach students, as she says, "why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.” She has pledged to "restore honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country," and suggests a more “patriotic” version of American history for K-12 schools. 

These measures have some parents concerned. 

Christopher Hansen is a parent from Rapid City. He has two kids in public school and one who  recently graduated. He’s concerned that kids might be taught material they are not ready for. But even more, he’s worried the nation’s classrooms are becoming a battleground for the nation’s culture wars. 

“I think it’s a bit reactionary and dangerous of just going right down the other end of the road – indoctrinating kids the other way.” 

Some state educators say Noem is taking on something that’s extremely theoretical. 

Mel Olson recently retired after teaching history and social studies for about 40 years. He also served in the state legislature for 12 years.  

“'Well, we know it’s not an issue now, but gosh, it might be and it could be’ -- and that’s ridiculous,” says Olson. “Parents who are concerned about what their kids are learning are good parents. They should be involved in the school. But instead of just blindly throwing darts at a dart board, they should actually visit a classroom. They should actually go to the schoolboard. They should actually look at the standards. They should actually look at their kid’s textbook and see what’s in there.” 

Many educators say they handle topics of race delicately in their classrooms because it’s such a high profile issue. Alexander Lang is a history professor at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. Lang says some people see this as an effort to mislead students about our racial history. He’s concerned that perception could result in a deliberate effort to use legislation to redefine civics education.  

“Education is not a place to be given any single narrative. And I’m not really sure that’s productive for America, and really helpful in really any way.”  

Some conservative legislators hope to address concerns about civics education during the 2022 legislative session.