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South Dakota lawmakers want to ban 'divisive concepts' from being endorsed by teachers

A bill on the eve of arriving in the Senate would "protect" K-12 students from so-called "political indoctrination" by preventing teachers from stumping for eight concepts, comprising critiques of meritocracy and America's relationship to slavery.

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Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, holds up a copy of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the House education committee hearing on Feb. 9, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — It's been a banner few weeks for Harper Lee's " To Kill a Mockingbird " in the South Dakota Legislature.

Amid a push for a bill to end so-called "political indoctrination" in the Rushmore State's K-12 institutions an executive director for the state's school boards wondered if under the proposed House Bill 1337, the iconic novel about racism in small-town America might not be allowed to be taught.

"Harper Lee has been criticized for this book because ... it's really, really hard on racism, on discrimination, on social justice, and those things," said Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, who invoked his past as an English teacher while speaking to the House education committee on Feb. 9. "I'm not sure, when I read the bill of divisive concepts, that we can teach this [book]."

The committee passed an amended version of the bill, which was backed by Gov. Kristi Noem and many in the GOP-dominated chambers. But a few days later, on the House floor , the famous book was brought up again.

"'To Kill a Mockingbird,' for example, is a required text that deals with race in our school," said House Minority Leader and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jamie Smith, of Sioux Falls. "Would that still be allowed to be taught in our schools?"

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HB 1337's prime sponsor, Rep. Sue Peterson, R-Sioux Falls, told him, "My understanding is yes."

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South Dakota Democratic Legislative leadership Sen. Reynold Nesiba, left, Rep. Linda Duba, and House Minority Leader Jamie Smith, all of Sioux Falls.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

The exchange marked a crescendo in the rhetorical war of words that has echoed from school boards to statehouses across the land over the role of race, racism, and the public school classroom.

In South Dakota, the fight has largely been waged through two bills, HB 1337 and another measure, House Bill 1012, that would ban so-called "divisive concepts" from being endorsed in mandatory training for college campus students or faculty.

Both have passed the House of Representatives , with only minimal Republican defections. On Feb. 10, GOP leaders took questions on the bill in the weekly news conference , with Rep. Chris Johnson, R-Rapid City, dismissing criticism that the bills were tantamount to the policing of thought by recalling his school days in Highmore, South Dakota.

"I can remember many times we talked about divisive concepts," said Johnson. "I remember studying things like the Trail of Tears and the Whiskey Rebellion, lots of slavery. Lots of things that are divisive."

But Johnson differentiated his education with what he feels is part-and-parcel of today's classroom: a heightened, even wrongheaded critique of systemic racism.

"I never felt like because I was a white, male, Christian who comes from a two-parent household that I was automatically an oppressor," said Johnson.

The bill — as its supporters are quick to point out — doesn't blacklist the teaching of divisive concepts, to be sure. According to HB 1337 's text, a teacher "[d]iscussing, as part of a larger course of academic instruction, a divisive concept" is allowed. The same is true for student debate.

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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has supported rooting out what she's termed "political indoctrination" in the state's K-12 public schools.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

What 1337 bans, say backers, is a teacher using curricula that either "promotes" a divisive concept, or "directs or compels" a student to embrace said concept.

The phraseology of "divisive" has been murky.

While leading campus free speech group FIRE (Foundation for individual Rights in Education) has worked with Noem and Peterson to craft HB 1012 , the group's legislative and policy director, Joe Cohn, said that anytime a label is applied to educational content there can arise a "problem."

"Generally speaking, we try to avoid the government labeling particular ideas as 'good' or 'bad,' as a potential chilling effect that it can create," Cohn said in a Friday, Feb.18, interview with Forum News Service.

While HB 1012 only addresses mandatory trainings in college, HB 1337 does involve aggressive action by state government into the classrooms.

"This one does address curriculum," said Peterson, in a floor speech on Tuesday, Feb. 15. "And we do have the ability to do that in South Dakota. The state can make those decisions at the K-12 level. What we are trying to do is prevent the promotion of these divisive concepts."

But what exactly are the "divisive concepts?"

According to HB 1337, the state would outlaw eight concepts from school instruction, running the gamut from endorsing the notion that any race or ethnicity is "inherently superior" to the idea that, by virtue of one's race, a student is "inherently responsible" for actions taken by members of their race in the past.

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The list goes on. One divisive concept banned under the bill would be the idea that anyone should feel "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress" because of his or her racial or ethnic or religious identity.

The bill also would forbid any critique of meritocracy as somehow linked to racist understandings of the world. And its final stricture bans any idea that "slavery and racism" are "anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to America's founding principles."

Noem at Thursday's news conference congratulated the House for passing her bills.

"We don't want our kids learning [those] kind of lessons in our school systems," said Noem, accusing certain curricula of endorsing the notion that children, by the vestiges of their race, are "guilty of something."

During the Democratic news conference, however, leadership took a different tact.

"There's been an assault on public educators," said House Minority Leader Smith. "For goodness's sake. Now we have to come here and talk about things you can talk about and can't talk about? These are national politics rearing their ugly head in South Dakota."

The bills will soon appear in the state Senate, meaning — at least for another time or two — the story about the Southern trial attorney told through the eyes of his daughter, will reemerge under the Capitol dome.

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

8 'divisive concepts' in HB 1337

According to the text of House Bill 1337, a divisive concept is any of the following:

  1. That any race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior;
  2. That individuals should be discriminated against or adversely treated on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin;
  3. That an individual’s moral character is inherently determined on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin;
  4. That an individual, by virtue of the individual's race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
  5. That individuals, by virtue of race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin;
  6. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, color, religion, ethnicity or national origin;
  7. Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;
  8. With respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to America's founding principles of liberty and equality, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.
MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK:
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Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
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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