Facing criticism from education groups, bill funding civics curriculum passes committee

Narrowly passing the education committee, the proposal of a "Center for American Exceptionalism" at Black Hills State University will face scrutiny from appropriators next.

Rep. Scott Odenbach, a Republican legislator from Spearfish, defends his bill in front of the House Education Committee on Jan. 23.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
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PIERRE, S.D. — A bill providing funding to create a “Center for American Exceptionalism” at Black Hills State University, which houses South Dakota’s largest teacher preparation program, passed its first hurdle in the House Education Committee with a vote of 6-9.

The center, proposed by House Bill 1070, would focus on curriculum development from kindergarten through the collegiate level, which bodies like local school boards would be able to adopt if they so choose.

The discussion surrounding the bill on the morning of Jan. 23 included an attempt to balance the need to present students with honest reflections of competing ideas with the fiscal sense of the investment.

Rep. Scott Odenbach, of Spearfish, the prime sponsor of the legislation, said the genesis of the bill came from his own experience in comparative education and the feeling that schools in the state were failing to instill an appreciation of country in students.

“I've had friends over the years in college and later who've grown up in communist countries, and their stories were so impactful to me,” he said during his opening testimony. “I would have our students have the same opportunity to hear those stories and just be able to analyze the difference. And I think, if they do, they'll come out of it with a greater love of country.”


It will be referred to the House Appropriations Committee, where it should face heightened scrutiny for its potential use of one-time dollars to fund an ongoing program, as Odenbach said he hoped to use the one-time $150,000 investment to hire two individuals to begin implementation, with future funding up to the legislature based on the center’s performance.

“This bill would appropriate $150,000 in one-time funding to provide initial support for the program, but it does not account for ongoing funding needs,” Brandy Miesner, a representative from the Bureau of Finance and Management, said during opponent testimony, although she did support a referral to appropriators rather than a complete rejection of the bill. “It is unclear at this time what sort of ongoing funding will be needed to support the program into the future.”

The opposing side, which included several lobbyists from organizations representing educators and schools, framed the bill as duplicative of mechanisms already in place at the South Dakota Department of Education and locally-elected school boards. They further argued that the $150,000 would not be nearly enough to fund the bill’s scope.

Diana Miller, a former South Dakota Education Association president who now lobbies for school districts, testifies against House Bill 1070 on Jan. 23, arguing it creates another government board on top of the current system. "K-12 education is not broken," she said.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

As the prime sponsor, Odenbach used his rebuttal time to address the several new representatives on the committee, arguing that education lobbyists are often opposed to bills that attempt to innovate.

“This is maybe the first time, but it won't be the last time you'll be subjected to what I call the ‘Parade of Horribles,’ from all the folks that like public school just the way it is and never want to change one thing,” Odenbach said.

After the committee adjourned, several of those lobbyists confronted Odenbach, taking issue with his words. Rob Monson, an opponent of the bill and the executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota, told Forum News Service after the meeting he found the characterization “offensive.”

Odenbach sees ‘Center for American Exceptionalism’ as ‘supplemental’ to social studies standards review process

The relationship between the plans for the center and the contentious revision currently ongoing to the state’s social studies standards is unclear at the moment, as neither has been put into law and each could stand on its own without the other.

However, part of Odenbach’s testimony engaged with the criticism from opponents of the social studies standards revision that the development of the standards by William Morrisey, a former professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan, did not include proper engagement with South Dakota educators. He pointed out that curriculum procurement options are limited to out-of-state companies with a “near monopoly” on the industry.


“I talked to the governor's office about it and I think that they're in full support of having this stand up to become a partner in bringing these social studies standards on home this time around and being a resource for the next time around,” Odenbach said.

Beyond the representative from the Bureau of Finance and Management, no members of Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration presented during either proponent or opponent testimony.

Yet critics of Odenbach’s bill felt it makes several of the same mistakes made by the current social studies standards review.

“We're all seeing the quagmire we're in with the adoption of our social studies standards when an institution of higher education leads a discussion and doesn't include K-12 educators in that discussion,” Monson said. “Let's not put ourselves in that position with this bill.”

Odenbach’s bill, which picked up eight co-sponsors in the House and three total sponsors in the Senate, would invest in helping “make the state’s public universities contributing, meaningful, and relevant partners in civics and social studies education.”

Toward this end, the bill instructs the center to develop a K-12 curriculum including “a South Dakota history and American Indian tribes component focusing on the proud history of the indigenous peoples of South Dakota,” provide educators with professional development opportunities and serving as a resource for ‘multi-media content” dealing with the state’s social studies standards.

The bill would also charge the center with promoting and implementing the “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” program throughout South Dakota’s public schools as well as creating syllabi for two collegiate courses available at the state’s public institutions — one comparing “communist/socialist countries to Western-style democratic countries throughout history” and another comparing “command-style socialist economies to free-market capitalist economies throughout history.”

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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