‘Nobody teaches a class on critical race theory’: CRT’s perceived influence in South Dakota education – Sioux Falls Argus Leader

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When critical race theory emerged as a controversial topic in South Dakota in recent months, Barry Dunn said he and most other people in higher education had to look it up on Wikipedia.

Dunn, president of South Dakota State University, was part of the group behind the South Dakota Board of Regents statement on critical race theory (CRT) released Thursday that explains CRT isn’t the basis for instruction at the state’s six public universities.

More: Regents: Critical race theory isn’t the basis for instruction at South Dakota’s colleges

CRT is an academic concept created by legal scholars and educators in the 1970s. Its core idea is racism is embedded in legal systems and policies, is a common experience faced by non-white people in the U.S. and benefits white people.

But how did the theory, which top education officials largely say doesn’t show up in South Dakota’s content standards or curriculum in K-12 or colleges, become such a prevalent topic in executive orders, school board debates and headlines?

What is critical race theory?

To some, the theory is an attack on individual groups based on race. To others, the theory is a way to ask questions about equality of opportunity and the systemic nature of racism in the U.S.

Gov. Kristi Noem defines CRT as something that divides students into groups based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin, then “labels them as responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of those same classes or groups.”

Noem argues CRT ignores what has made America “exceptional,” which is the power of each individual to achieve success and successive generations’ improvement on the promises set forth in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Ibram Kendi, who was recently named in Noem’s executive order about the issue and is an expert on the topic, said while he is not the father of CRT, he knows it’s a legal discipline. Kendi told South Dakota Public Broadcasting much of his research as a National Book Award-winning author for “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” and a leading antiracism scholar is based on looking at unequal outcomes and then questioning equality of opportunity.

The theory is a “catch-all phrase” with a lot of different meanings from a lot of different groups, Tiffany Sanderson, Secretary of Education, told the Argus Leader on Tuesday following a Downtown Sioux Falls Rotary meeting.

How did we get here?

In 2019, Noem pushed for a law that would require universities to promote intellectual diversity, which she now says allows CRT to be discussed in the context of academic debate as an intellectual theory, but not as a specific, required curriculum for history classes.

South Dakota was the first state in the nation to pass such a law, which bars the public university system from interfering with constitutionally protected speech, including what some might find “offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed.”

The law also requires public universities to report steps taken to broadly promote intellectual diversity of all ideas, including refutations or criticism of CRT, the first-term Republican governor said.

“Institutions retain the power to pick and choose curriculum without limiting speech,” Noem said.

In her state of the state speech in January, Noem pointed to her upcoming civics and history curriculum creation initiative and said, “we must also do a better job educating teachers on these three subjects.”

The goal, she said, should be to explain why the U.S. is the “most special nation in the history of the world.”

Days earlier, she’d penned an op-ed that stated the U.S. had “failed to educate generations of children about what makes America unique,” and that the “left” was “indoctrinating students.”

Local educators said her comments were “incredibly insulting,” divisive and not a constructive starting point.

Her $900,000 push for South Dakota-specific history and civics curriculum is underway now as the bill passed in session.

But educators have questioned if the curriculum will be culturally responsive, and encompass more than just settler perspectives of the state, which is the historical homeland of the Oceti Sakowin — Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

Educators and lawmakers have also shared doubts about if the curriculum is coming from good intentions after Noem said she was concerned about “teaching our children and grandchildren to hate their own country,” signing on to a “1776 Pledge to Save Our Schools” in May.

That pledge commits to “honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.”

Conversations about CRT have seeped into the hyper-local level, invading debates for school board candidates in Sioux Falls and public comment from lawmakers during Rapid City school board meetings.

In the last three months, the same Joint Committee on Appropriations that considered stripping $275,000 in funding from the University of South Dakota over its diversity office during session also wrote letters of intent to the state’s three top education officials asking them to hold off on applying for federal grants on civics and history until the entire Legislature has an opportunity to pursue legislation addressing CRT.

Letter to the DOE: South Dakota lawmakers tell Department of Education to not pursue federal grants for history, civics classes

Letter to higher education officials: Lawmakers draft letter asking SD college officials to hold off on Critical Race Theory grants

Sanderson then wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education opposing their proposal to prioritize CRT curriculum.

By late May, Noem asked Regents to consider whether funds are used to teach CRT, to which the board one day later said it was already investigating that.

Last week, Noem signed an executive order banning the DOE from applying for any federal grants on history or civics until after the 2022 session with the intention of banning any grants tied to CRT. 

The movement to quash perceived influence of CRT foreshadows a 2022 session with a clash of ideologies over the state’s higher education system, and differences of opinion on whether universities should work to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

It also foreshadows legislation banning any and all curriculum on topics like CRT, and possible defunding of diversity offices or conversions into “opportunity centers.”

Center structures should be in place by Jan. 1, according to a new action plan unanimously passed Thursday by the Regents.

Noem said in a statement Thursday she was glad to see “so-called diversity offices, which have unfortunately become less about serving students and more about advancing leftist agendas,” will be replaced by the opportunity centers.

More: Critical race theory: Gov. Kristi Noem signs executive order banning DOE from federal grants

How has CRT impacted K-12 education?

In a Rotary meeting last week, Sanderson said the DOE never intended to apply for the federal grants Noem banned the DOE from applying for. 

Sanderson said most of the time, CRT is taught in higher education. However, she said she’s seen other states impacted by CRT coming into the K-12 system, but that South Dakota’s “not in that space” like other states are.

Her priority, Sanderson said, is to focus on students’ cognitive development and to set strong examples for them to understand they can build unity, hope, and come together to solve problems.

History is important, too, Sanderson said, so students can understand how the U.S. was founded, “what makes it special to have a constitutional republic in place for 245 years,” and to not overlook “terrible decisions” that have been made at times in U.S. history.

Mary Stadick Smith, deputy secretary for the DOE, said to the best of her knowledge, CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools.

Local schools make decisions about curriculum, which is meant to teach to the state’s content standards. CRT doesn’t show up in the state’s content standards, Smith said.

Sioux Falls School District superintendent Jane Stavem noted the district’s civics and history curriculum aligns with state standards, and that people are welcome to review the district’s history books.

More: Critical race theory, transparency among hot topics at school board candidate debate

How has CRT impacted higher education?

Brian Maher, executive director of the Regents, said CRT isn’t the basis for instruction in the state’s six public universities, and it won’t be. 

The system wouldn’t compel students to accept any particular set of beliefs, rather, it encourages students to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, ideas and theories so they can be debated and critiqued.

“Students must be prepared to identify the good and bad in new or controversial areas of thought,” Maher said. “Our students will learn about America’s history, our system of individual liberty in a democratic republic, and our system of free enterprise. Part of that instruction is to acknowledge and discuss America’s flaws and mistakes, so that we can learn from them and improve.”

Dunn said he can’t find any evidence of CRT showing up in class syllabuses. 

However, parts of CRT and its sensitivity on race has “certainly permeated all parts of society, including higher education,” Dunn said.

Professors like Tim Schorn at the University of South Dakota do use, or plan to use, CRT in class so that students can have experience working with the academic theory.

Schorn has said CRT doesn’t assign blame to an individual or group of individuals, as Noem has said. Rather, CRT looks at systems and how they evolved.

“Nobody teaches a class on critical race theory,” Schorn told SDPB. “But we incorporate aspects of critical race theory to offer an explanation on what occurs and what exists.”

College students have the ability to filter through things and understand things, Schorn noted, and he expects challenging, rewarding conversations ahead at USD on CRT.

Reynold Nesiba, a Democratic state Senator from Sioux Falls and a professor of economics at Augustana University since 1995, said recent discussions on CRT have had a “chilling effect” on allowing teachers to talk about race at all, and that Noem is banning something she purposely hasn’t defined.

Government regulation of free speech, Nesiba added, is the “opposite of freedom and liberty.”

“Is there a teacher anywhere in South Dakota teaching critical race theory, or are we just on some sort of Red Scare hunt?” Nesiba said. “This is a lot like that. It seems out of proportion with both the real problems we have in South Dakota education, and it’s being talked about in such an unsophisticated, panicked way.”