Published September 20, 2021
Hard-left activists have taken over the writing of K-12 history and civics standards in ruby-red South Dakota. Governor Kristi Noem’s administration has belatedly attempted to set things right, but the troubled standards are nowhere near fixed. While public attention has been drawn to the controversy, the press has done little to explain what is actually in the new social-studies standards or how the process ran off the rails. The resignation of two “workgroup” members from the committee drafting the new standards shortly before the release of the final report has also spurred public interest. The picture that emerges from an examination of public documents, as well as conversations with committee members, is disturbing.
While Noem deserves credit for an important move to curb politicization of South Dakota classrooms (more on that below), she bears significant responsibility for the current mess. Noem has positioned herself nationally as a tough-minded conservative, yet she’s handed control of South Dakota’s Department of Education to squishy establishment types only too happy to allow leftist professors, bureaucrats, and their hand-selected teachers to run the show. That said, the real bad actors in this story are at the South Dakota Department of Education, which has blatantly defied the governor’s wishes.
Here’s the bottom line. Unless Noem throws out the current, hopelessly compromised draft social-studies standards, replaces the state education bureaucrats responsible for this fiasco, and puts thoughtful conservatives in charge of the standards revision process, South Dakota’s schools are poised to become playthings of the Left.
This past May, I praised Governor Noem for being the first politician to sign the candidate/office holder pledge designed by the group “1776 Action.” That pledge commits Noem to keeping critical race theory (CRT) and action civics (in practice, leftist political activism for course credit) out of South Dakota’s schools. While I lauded Noem’s move in May, I also warned that fulfilling her pledge would require heavy lifting. Like most states, South Dakota’s education bureaucracy is controlled by woke leftists. At the very moment Noem was promising to keep action civics and CRT out of South Dakota’s schools, her Department of Education was revising state standards to match the approach favored by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), a leftist group that supports both action civics and CRT. To make her pledge count as more than empty talk, I said, Noem would need to call a halt to South Dakota’s current standards revision process and put new people in charge — appointees who actually believe in her pledge.
Sad to say, Noem did not follow through. Instead, she allowed the existing standards revision process to continue on a track that placed it in direct opposition to the spirit and substance of her pledge. Just a couple of weeks after Noem’s pledge, Melinda Johnson, the social-studies specialist at the South Dakota Department of Education, signed a contract with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) for the services of a consultant who would facilitate revisions to the state’s social-studies standards. Beth Ratway, the consultant/facilitator/team leader provided by AIR, is a leading advocate of action civics and a proponent of teaching for “social justice” (in practice, leftist politics). Once Ratway was hired to guide South Dakota’s social-studies revisions, the behind-the-scenes reality of Noem’s education policy could not have been more different from its public face.
Ratway co-chaired the 2020 Advancing Social Justice Conference for NCSS and received a special commendation from the group for her efforts. Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the 1619 Project, was a featured speaker at Ratway’s conference, and plenty of the conference panels pushed for action civics and CRT. Ratway is also affiliated with the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative, a left-dominated coalition dedicated to pushing action civics on America’s schools. EAD has been roundly criticized by conservatives like Mark Bauerlein, Jonathan Butcher, John Fonte, Joy Pullmann, Peter Wood, Scott Yenor (and me). So, the key facilitator of South Dakota’s social-studies standards revision process is an advocate of everything Noem has pledged to oppose.
You can see Ratway at work in an extraordinary video where she provides teachers with strategies for bringing “social justice” training into their classrooms, even when parents object. Ratway’s seminar in misdirection validates long-standing conservative concerns that bland-sounding language built into state education standards is cleverly designed to enable leftist political indoctrination. Grassroots conservatives get called conspiracy theorists for raising these concerns, but Ratway’s video is essentially a “how to” lesson for leftist educators looking to defuse legitimate parental concerns about indoctrination. The trick Ratway gives them is to reference ambiguous phrases from state standards as a defense.
Drawing on language from the United Nations, Ratway defines “social justice” as “fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” Invoking authors like the Marxist educator Paulo Freire (an ed-school favorite), she adds material on “questioning institutional knowledge” so as not to “reproduce power and privilege.” Ratway tells the teachers watching her seminar to push these ideas indirectly, by framing them as questions like, “What would a historian ask?” She also suggests pushing social justice under the guise of exploring “multiple perspectives.” Yet Ratway’s goal is very evidently not a balanced and open exploration of “multiple perspectives.” On the contrary, she aims to promote a broadly leftist political vision under the decidedly misleading guise of open-mindedness.
Ratway tells teachers that when parents challenge politicization, they should say that they have no choice but to teach this way because it’s “in the standards.” Indeed, the standards Ratway favors are full of seemingly neutral phrases like, “use multiple perspectives” and “think like a historian,” designed to be used as pretexts for leftist politics.
A striking moment (51 minutes into Ratway’s video seminar) features a teacher who would like to advocate for social justice in her classes but has been forced by COVID to work remotely. This teacher is reluctant to get political because she “worries constantly” the parents will record her classes. Flummoxed and stumped, Ratway is unable to come up with a workaround for a would-be social-justice warrior forced to endure parental scrutiny. It is a telling — and inadvertently funny — moment.
If you’ve long suspected that educators use bland jargon to disguise leftist political agendas, this video is for you. But why is someone like Ratway running the history and civics standards revision process in Kristi Noem’s deep-red South Dakota?
Make no mistake, notwithstanding Ratway’s modest title of “facilitator,” she and social-studies specialist Melinda Johnson were in firm control of the standards revision process. Supposedly, a “non-partisan” committee of nearly 50 South Dakota educators and citizens have been putting heads together, with the help of Ratway and Johnson, to come up with South Dakota’s standards. In fact, as I’ll explain, the fix was in from the start, and the 40-some committee members were largely window dressing for the pre-arranged conclusion: do whatever the leftist National Council for the Social Studies says. This could hardly have been more at odds with the governor’s pledge.
Consider the proposal from AIR accepted by the South Dakota Department of Education when it contracted for Ratway’s services. That proposal touts Ratway’s expertise in the NCSS’s College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards and commits to integrating the C3 framework with the revised standards. The NCSS C3 Framework is designed to promote action civics in the schools. Two of the C3 Framework’s authors, Peter Levine and Meira Levinson, are leading national advocates of action civics. The National Association of Scholars, which resolutely rejects action civics, and has convened a national alliance to oppose it, has issued a scathing critique of the NCSS C3 Framework which concludes: “Any state which has adopted the C3 Framework, or allowed the C3 Framework to shape its social studies standards, should immediately remove these standards and craft new standards.” (Are you listening, Governor Noem?)
AIR’s proposal also commits it to using a tool created by the Great Lakes Equity Center to ensure that the revised social-studies standards are “equitable and diverse.” That assessment tool is filled with references to the literature of hard-left multiculturalism and CRT. The writings of Gloria Ladson-Billings, the mother of critical race theory in K-12 education, are the leading inspiration for this measuring stick by which South Dakota’s draft social-studies standards are to be assessed.
Finally, AIR’s proposal promises to train the team writing the revised standards in the “Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards” Those standards are sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), once a respected civil-rights group but in recent years notorious for ill-founded accusations against religious and conservative groups. The SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance Social Justice standards promote identity politics, intersectionality, CRT-style ideas like “systemic” injustice and race-based “privilege,” and action civics to boot.
In short, a couple of weeks after Governor Noem promised to fight these very same educational approaches, and well before the standards writing committee even had a chance to go to work, South Dakota’s Department of Education signed a contract effectively committing the state to violating the governor’s pledge, and agreed to pay nearly a quarter-million dollars to do so.
Meanwhile, around the time the contract for Ratway’s services was signed, the committee writing the standards was being trained in the use of the C3 Framework via video by Taylor Hamblin, a professor of education at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. In this video, for example, Hamblin shows how to combine the South Dakota state standards with the C3 Framework to make students “take informed action,” i.e., publicly advocate for a position on some controversial issue. Using a South Dakota state standard that simply says, “Describe the changing federal policy toward Native Americans after the Civil War,” Hamblin uses C3 techniques to transform a history lesson into an exercise in action civics.
Hamblin instructs students to create opinion pieces that promote the use or recognition of indigenous names for various places now named differently. (Think Denali instead of Mount McKinley, or Coaquannock instead of Philadelphia.) It’s a variant of the practice of “land acknowledgements” favored by the contemporary Left. In fact, the NCSS social-justice conference Ratway co-chaired opened with a guilt-laden “land acknowledgement.”
Supposedly, Hamblin’s classroom exercise advances “critical thinking.” In fact, it promotes the opposite. Renaming controversies raise complex issues of historical responsibility, assimilation, national identity, the imposition of contemporary values on the past, and the rights, wrongs, and responsibilities of the early pioneers and Native Americans. Actual critical thinking would explore these issues from a variety of viewpoints, without imposing one-sided activism on students under cover of state-mandated standards.
Forced consensus seems to be a thing with the duo in charge of the revised standards. Instead of having the committee vote on the wording of a given standard, with the majority winning the day, Melinda Johnson and Beth Ratway insisted on unanimity.
They devised a system of red, yellow, and green flash cards. Red was a no vote. Yellow meant you had reservations but would support the proposed language and not speak against it. Green meant yes. Ratway and Johnson insisted that the group could not move forward with its work if even one person voted no. Instead, the recalcitrant red-light voter would find Ratway and Johnson standing behind them while others in the group worked to push them to yellow or green. In practice, this pressure-technique was applied almost exclusively to conservatives, who were the main objectors to the committee’s consistently left-leaning work-product. In short, the demand for consensus was aimed at stifling public dissent from the committee’s conservative minority.
But what about Governor Noem’s pledge to bar CRT and action civics? How could the committee move forward with an action civics-based approach in the face of the governor’s promise to the contrary? When one of the conservatives presented that question to the group, the challenge was quickly dismissed. A team leader pointed out that the standards revision process had gotten off the ground even before Governor Noem took office, as if the current governor’s wishes were irrelevant. Taylor Hamblin maintained — in the face of massive evidence to the contrary — that the action-civics-based C3 Framework was entirely compatible with the governor’s wishes.
When the South Dakota social-studies standards controversy broke out publicly a couple of weeks ago, one of the workgroup’s left-leaning members said: “People worried about public comments by government officials on what should be taught. We were told to ignore the publicity and do what was best for the students of South Dakota.” My sources confirm this. In effect, the committee was told to ignore the governor’s wishes.
Ultimately, Johnson and Ratway failed to silence the committee’s dissenting conservatives. In late June Sue Peterson, a representative in the South Dakota state House from Sioux Falls, and Dr. Richard Meyer, a retired orthodontist from Rapid City with a longstanding interest in education, resigned from the social-studies standards committee. They objected to the direction the committee was taking on the content of the standards, its obvious defiance of the governor’s pledge on action civics, and the attempts to force a false consensus. Peterson and Meyer did not make their concerns public at the time, since the final version of the standards had not yet been released. A report of their resignations leaked to the press, however, in mid-July.
Toward the end of that month, the standards revision committee submitted their text to the Department of Education. In open violation of Noem’s pledge, that text included provisions for exercises in action civics, with specifics to be filled in after the standards themselves were officially approved. Three days after the draft standards were submitted, Noem issued Executive Order 2021-11 barring CRT and action civics from K-12 and promising to pass a law to that effect in the 2022 legislative session. The EO was a laudable exercise, yet it came entirely too late.
Rather than releasing the standards as submitted by the workgroup in late July, Noem’s administration released a hastily revised draft in early August. The action-civics mandates were removed and a few positive additions inserted. In the end, however, the changes were largely cosmetic. The structure and substance of even the revised version were deeply at odds with what Noem had led her supporters to believe. How could things have gotten to the point where a conservative state representative felt compelled to resign in protest over leftist bias in a Kristi Noem-sponsored education initiative?
The cynical interpretation of all this is that Noem cares more about splashy public promises than about governing. Although she had good reason to know that her Department of Education was in league with the leftist education establishment, Noem did nothing to enforce her public pledge until word of the resignations leaked. By that point, it was too late for more than cosmetic changes to the standards. We got superficial damage control instead.
The more charitable interpretation is that Noem could reasonably have expected her Department of Education to adhere to her public pledge. In this view, the lion’s share of blame falls on openly defiant educators and bureaucrats, and on the appointees at the Department of Education who enabled them.
Although there is truth in both views, the root problem is that Noem stocked her Department of Education from the first with the same crew of go-along-to-get-along bureaucrats who have allowed leftist ideologues to run things in South Dakota for years. Sadly, this is typical of education bureaucracies, whether red-state or blue. America’s education establishment is so totally dominated by the Left that unless Republican governors and state secretaries of education aggressively push back against the tide, nothing changes.
Yet Noem is presenting herself to the country as a conservative disruptor willing to undertake precisely that sort of pushback. Noem can still be a hero if she follows through on her promises, ditches this summer’s ill-starred standards, makes a clean sweep of her Department of Education, and moves to draft social-studies standards that break from the usual leftist fare. We desperately need alternative models for history and civics education, and Noem is well-placed to create one. To do so, however, she’ll need to go beyond showy gestures and govern as the bold conservative she claims to be.
This summer’s draft South Dakota social-studies standards, along with the bogus eleventh-hour “fix,” are object lessons in what not to do. I’ll have more to say about what’s wrong with them, and how to repair the damage, in a follow-up piece. I hope Governor Noem will be listening. The opportunity for national leadership on this issue remains.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).