At the initiative of state senator Ryan Maher (and with implicit encouragement from Governor Kristi Noem), legislators in South Dakota have introduced a new tool designed to prevent the feds from forcing action civics (invariably leftist protest and lobbying) and Critical Race Theory (attacks on “whiteness,” “Eurocentrism,” etc.) onto schools. The device, a legislative “letter of intent,” would help prevent leftist education bureaucrats from accepting federal grants with strings requiring action civics and Critical Race Theory, before the legislature and the governor have had a chance to consider laws that would bar those practices.
Many state legislatures have adjourned for 2021, or are nearing the end of their sessions. While some states have passed bills barring the teaching of Critical Race Theory in K-12, most have not. Only Texas to date has advanced a bill (based on this model) that would bar both action civics and Critical Race Theory from K-12. That is important because the big federal bill that would use grants to force Critical Race Theory on the states would do the same for the pernicious practice of action civics. Should the federal Civics Secures Democracy Act (or other similar federal bills) pass before the end of the 2022 state legislative session, education bureaucrats could effectively commit a state to federal grants with strings requiring both action civics and Critical Race Theory, before legislatures and governors have had a chance to act.
Politically, it is exceedingly difficult for a governor to block state applications for juicy federal grants. President Obama managed to push Common Core on states using Race to the Top grants, well before legislators or governors had a say. The same could happen with action civics and Critical Race Theory, especially since even red-state education bureaucrats tend to be far to the left of voters. Bureaucrats will eagerly apply for grants that politicize the schools before state legislatures can act.
Noem set the stage for pushback against this state of affairs when she became the first officeholder in the country to sign the 1776 Action pledge to bar action civics and Critical Race Theory from schools. Taking his cue from Noem, state senator Ryan Maher has hit on a way to prevent education bureaucrats from pre-empting democratic decision-making. South Dakota’s Joint Committee on Appropriations (JCA) has a well-established practice of issuing letters of intent even after the formal ending of the legislative session. While such letters do not have the force of law, they express the intent of a powerful appropriations committee and pointedly note that future appropriations will hinge, in part, on the state bureaucracy’s willingness to heed legislative intent.
At Maher’s initiative, the JCA has now issued a letter of intent telling state bureaucrats to refrain from applying for federal grants in history or civics “until after the South Dakota legislature has had an opportunity to address and act upon legislative initiatives related to these topics in its 2022 Legislative session.” The letter goes on to note that the legislature wishes to consider bills that would bar both action civics and Critical Race Theory next year. The letter also cites the new Biden rule giving priority to federal grants that feature Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project, and cites as well grants under the pending federal Civics Secures Democracy Act or the Civics Learning Act.
The conclusion of the letter is of particular interest, since it says that the South Dakota Department of Education “should continue to consult with JCA before it applies for any federal grants in the areas of American history or civics education in the years ahead.” That is a breakthrough directive that could help thwart the federal government’s attempts to force its own education priorities on the states. Leftist state education bureaucrats end-running legislatures is how we got Common Core, and how we may soon get action civics and Critical Race Theory. It’s encouraging to see South Dakota legislators moving to reassert control over their state’s education system, all in the wake of Noem’s pathbreaking pledge.
Even in ruby-red South Dakota, the press refuses to play it straight. Despite the fact that the JCA voted to approve the letter of intent by a margin of 16-1, the local Argus Leader’s account of the letter is largely a platform for its opponents. Democratic representative Linda Duba of Sioux Falls, the only vote against the letter, tells the Argus Leader that it’s not the legislature’s job to inject itself into education. Duba is wrong. State legislative abdication on education is how we got the disastrous Common Core (of which Duba is a fan). It’s long past time that legislators stopped giving biased education bureaucrats a free pass. Duba goes on to deny that Critical Race Theory is about indoctrination, claiming instead that it pushes students to “think about all sides.” Maybe Duba should take a look at Illinois, where Critical Race Theory forces progressive politics on both teachers and students.
After extended quotes from Duba, the Argus Leader adds material from another opponent of the letter of intent, Democratic senator Reynold Nesiba of Sioux Falls. Nesiba defends action civics by praising practices such as school field trips to observe the legislature. This is entirely off-point, since legislative bars on action civics only affect requirements for political lobbying and advocacy. If you want to see what action civics would really do to South Dakota, have a look at the state’s draft Social Studies Standards, filled with tendentious, politicized, left-biased action-civics exercises that have no proper place in the public schools. Nesiba even seems to want to subject his fellow legislators to Critical Race Theory training so they’ll see the light. How open-minded of him.
The South Dakota letter of intent warning state bureaucrats to avoid federal grants in history and civics is a model for other states. If your state legislative session is over or winding down, this is for you. The Biden administration’s new rule, combined with priority criteria written into the proposed federal civics bills themselves, make it clear that Democrats will use federal grants to force leftist action civics and Critical Race Theory on every state and school district in this country. Emboldened by Kristi Noem’s pathbreaking pledge, South Dakota is pushing back. Other states take note.