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South Dakota House committee passes diluted 'critical race theory' bill

A provision that barred teaching topics that compel "anguish" or even "discomfort" in students was removed by the committee in one bill. Another measure said "divisive concepts" cannot be promoted, but can still be discussed in class.

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Rep. Erin Healy, D-Sioux Falls, asks a question of Gov. Kristi Noem's policy staffer, Allen Cambon, in a hearing over two bills to restrict the teaching of so-called "divisive" topics on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, at the Statehouse in Pierre.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota House education committee took up Gov. Kristi Noem's twin bills targeting the teaching of race in K-12 and college classrooms on Wednesday, Feb. 9, passing heavily edited bills that purport to ban "critical race theory" from colleges and so-called "political indoctrination" in schools.

But both bills tell a different story below their respective titles, as the amended version of House Bill 1012 approved by the committee on Wednesday does not say the words "critical race theory" anywhere.

Moreover, in approving House Bill 1337, the committee did not remove so-called "divisive" concepts from a classroom, but only moved to state that a teacher can't endorse them.

The first measure was hog-housed by an amendment from Rep. Sue Peterson, R-Sioux Falls, spelling out that nothing in the bill "pertains to the content or conduct of any course" on the state's college campuses.

Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, spoke for many on the committee who seemed skeptical of the far-reaching intent of the bill as originally drafted.

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"In the 133-year history of South Dakota, can you identify a specific group that is doing what you're afraid this bill is trying to prevent happening?" Stevens asked Noem staffer Allen Cambon.

Cambon pointed to "one professor at the School of Education at USD," who he said was an "active advocate of critical race theory."

There is no mention in the bill's text of "critical race theory." Following a voice amendment from Stevens, the committee stripped a section that contained the measure's only mention of "critical race theory."

But the bill does mention "divisive concepts." One "divisive concept," as defined by the bill, includes that the idea that one should feel "anguish" or "discomfort" because of their race or sex.

The text left standing in the measure restricts a university from requiring faculty or students to attend training or orientation that "teaches, advocates, acts upon or promotes divisive concepts."

The committee passed the amended bill 13-2 along party lines.

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Nathan Lukkes, attorney for the South Dakota Board of Regents, testifies in favor of an amended ban on "critical race theory" in schools. After amendments, the bill removed references to CRT and noted that the bill did not pertain to "the content or conduct" of any instruction.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

Teaching 'political activism'

The second bill, House Bill 1337, aimed to codify strictures on teachers "promoting politically divisive concepts" or pushing "political activism."

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Lawmakers heard an hour of testimony, including from a Rapid City mother, Carolyn Heffler, who told the committee she was alarmed by a librarian who promoted books that presented the Black Lives Matter movement in a positive light.

"Seems like California values have followed me here," Heffler said at the outset of her testimony.

Aberdeen social studies teacher Kent Hanson, however, said he'd spoken with fellow teachers and does not know of anyone teaching the "indicated offenses" outlined in the bill.

"I don't think it's necessary or appropriate for the Legislature to regulate curriculum or pedagogy," said Hanson.

Ultimately, this bill, too, was heavily watered down by amendments.

One amendment spelled out that the bill did not prohibit class discussion of a "divisive concept," merely its endorsement by a teacher. The committee also struck out language that appeared to deny students opportunities for internship credit or activities spurred by a social studies curricula.

Before a close vote, Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence, said the amendment "guts very important parts of the bill."

But Rep. Stevens said such a move was the only way to get his approval.

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"To me, this bill is somewhat of an indictment" of teachers, said Stevens. "This is a problem looking for an answer."

After approval of the amended version of the bill, Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, agreed that he saw the bill as a necessary bulwark against future curricula that could, someday arrive in the state.

"I don't believe they're [divisive concepts] being taught right now [in South Dakota], but I sure don't want them to be," said Mortenson.

Only the committee's two Democrats opposed the bill in a 13-2 vote. The bill now goes before the full House.

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

MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK:
The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

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