Senate committee kills 'divisive concepts' bill for K-12 in South Dakota

The Senate Education committee amended a bill to remove two so-called "divisive topics" related to slavery and "anguish" from the bill. Moments later, a majority on the committee voted down the measure, anyway, amid opposition from schools.

South Dakota Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson turns to answer a question during a hearing on Thursday, March 3, 2022 regarding, a bill to ban certain "divisive concepts" from the state's public classrooms and state agencies.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — A much-watch education bill in South Dakota tackling "critical race theory" appeared to die on Thursday, March 3, after being sent to the 41st day by a slim majority by a Senate committee.

The measure — House Bill 1337 — would've banned certain "divisive concepts" in South Dakota's public K-12 classrooms and state agencies, effectively muting teachers who would seek to compel "anguish" or "discomfort" in students on the basis of race or ethnicity or nationality.

Bill opponents, including lobbyists for the school boards and teachers union, have long fought the measure, which arrived after passage out of the House of Representatives and came with the blessing of Gov. Kristi Noem, who pledged in her state of the state address to rid so-called "critical race theory" from schools.

The measure was voted down 4-3 on Thursday in a Senate Education committee after three hours — and a second day — of testimony, committee questions, and debate.

"I don't believe it's the purview of the Legislature to act until other remedies have been exhausted," said Sen. Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, the chair's committee.


Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, noted the bill appeared to contradict previously established school standards around Lakota culture and language.

"We as Lakota people believe that we came from Wind Cave. That's our creation story," said Heinert, suggesting teaching Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings would be impossible or limited by HB 1337 's stricture against teachings rooted in identity. "So you can't have it both ways."

Three Republican members of the committee — Sens. Wayne Steinhauer (Hartford), Erin Tobin (Winner) and Jim Bolin (Canton) — voted for the measure, saying the concepts included in the proposal were repugnant and no teacher could have justification to "promote" them.

"I think I understand the difference between promote and teach," said Steinhauer.

Even before a final vote, however, the bill's supporters significantly amended the measure, removing two of the eight "divisive concepts," including the notion that slavery was anything other than a "deviation" from American values and that children be protected in the classroom from lessons that incite deliberate "discomfort" on the basis of the child's race or ethnicity or nationality.

"I think there's a chance this bill might get smoked out," said Steinhauer. "I'd like to get it in the best possible form before we get it to the floor."

"Smoked out" is parlance in Pierre for emerging from defeat in committee to new life on the floor. Next Monday marks the final day bills must pass out of a chamber.

The range of problems with the bill — termed "overreach" by Sen. V.J. Smith, R-Brookings — could be insurmountable, however. At one point, Sen. Kyle Schoenfish, R-Scotland, noted that even buried in section 2 of the bill appeared to be language banning all state agencies from the divisive concepts in question, as well.


"If you're comfortable with putting this in our red book," said Schoenfish, "We as a Legislature ... we're going to have to be really careful in our debates."

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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