Noem Pledges to Bar Action Civics and Critical Race Theory

Published May 10, 2021

National Review Online

South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has given major momentum to a new candidate pledge that not only vows support for honest and informed patriotic education, but promises to bar “action civics” (mandatory political protests for course credit) and critical race theory (CRT) (attacks on “whiteness,” “Eurocentrism,” etc.) from our schools. The pledge is sponsored by “1776 Action,” a new group founded by Adam Waldeck, a former aide to former speaker Newt Gingrich. The group enjoys support from former HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, as well as from Gingrich. After Noem signed the 1776 Action pledge, nearly every candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Virginia did the same. (Here’s a piece by Noem and Carson on the pledge she just signed.)

The 1776 Action candidate pledge and Noem’s decision to sign it are very positive developments. I’m about to count the ways. Note, however, that Noem has her work cut out for her. Even in a deep-dyed red state such as South Dakota, the threats that Noem has just pledged to battle have made shocking progress. Turning back those threats would truly make Noem a hero, but not before she undertakes the kind of action even red-state governors seldom initiate. We’ll get to the challenge Noem faces, but first let’s consider how good and important a development this pledge — signed by someone such as Governor Noem — really is.

It’s long past time that Americans dismayed by the turn to indoctrination in our schools demanded that candidates pledge to stop it. We’re familiar with the pledge device from Grover Norquist’s famous Taxpayer Protection Pledge, in which prospective office-holders commit to avoid raising taxes. I’ve argued that a similar pledge strategy ought to be used in higher education, especially to commit gubernatorial candidates to appoint public university regents who would support reforms designed to bring free speech and genuine intellectual diversity to our campuses. Getting public university regents to reform universities is the most important thing we are not doing to reform higher education. A candidate pledge strategy could change that.

A pledge strategy will work for K–12 as well, and we certainly need one now that our schools are being overrun by politicized action civics and CRT. Bravo to 1776 Action for applying this much-needed but seldom-used pledge device to education.

A pledge strategy is needed for K–12 because, sad to say, education is usually relegated to third-tier status by politicians. Without a pledge, candidates won’t pay attention. True, education has rocketed to first-tier status of late, but many politicians still don’t get that. Russ Vought, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, recently commented on Noem’s pledge and said: “Many establishment Republicans are slowly awakening to this being an issue that people care about. . . . So, if you’re a Republican, and you are not doing something to combat CRT, you have no idea where your people are.”

I’m afraid it’s worse than that. Too many members of the Republican establishment, from former Secretaries of Education, to U.S. Senators and Congressmen, to respected think tankers, have actually allied with the education left — at the worst conceivable moment. A pledge strategy just might get office-holders to ignore the decades-long follies and betrayals of the conservative education establishment and finally pay some attention to actual voters.

The 1776 Action pledge is also a sign that real resistance to indoctrination in our schools now depends on taking the battle to the state and local levels. With conservatives beginning to take school boards out of the hands of the woke, and states passing laws barring CRT, a candidate pledge is just the thing. It can and should be used for candidates at the federal, state, and local levels.

Finally, the folks at 1776 Action were clued-in enough to realize that not only a bar on CRT but a bar on action civics ought to be included in the pledge. Action civics is a deep violation of the non-partisanship that ought to characterize our public schools. Few people have even heard of it, yet a massive piece of federal legislative folly mistitled the Civics Secures Democracy Act is about to force not only CRT but also action civics on the states. This pledge can help stop that.

What does Governor Noem need to do in order to actually fulfill her pledge to block action civics and CRT in South Dakota? There are several steps she should take.

First, Noem needs to support legislation that would bar both action civics and CRT from South Dakota’s public K–12 schools. The model legislation I’ve published with the National Association of Scholars would do that, and Texas may soon pass a bill based on that model. Although South Dakota’s 2021 legislative session has ended, Governor Noem could conceivably call a special session to pass such a bill. There is a very good reason why such speedy action may be necessary.

If the disastrous Civics Secures Democracy Act should pass in Congress before South Dakota’s next legislative session convenes, it may be too late to stop both CRT and action civics from taking over the state. Leftist bureaucrats in South Dakota’s Department of Education will apply for the massive state grants funded by that proposed law. Once that happens, although Noem could pull the applications back, she would be under tremendous political pressure not to do so. At stake will be big federal grants for a small state with limited resources. That’s why it’s better to block action civics and CRT now, by state law.

Otherwise, President Biden’s outrageous new rule governing priority for history and civics grants — turbo-charged by a $6 billion federal appropriation and combined with priority criteria in the law itself — will effectively force action civics, CRT, and the 1619 Project even on red states such as South Dakota.

Unless the legislature comes back for a special session this year to address the issue, Governor Noem should prevent federal interference by ordering her Department of Education now to refrain from applying for any federal grants in history or civics until after the 2022 South Dakota legislative session. I wish I could say that this is all that needs doing, but it’s not. The rest of the story is itself an education on the deep-lying threats to America’s schools.

It turns out that South Dakota is already well along the road to crafting new statewide K–12 Social Studies standards. Unfortunately, those standards are appalling. The current draft of South Dakota Social Studies standards are filled with exercises in leftist action civics, precisely what Governor Noem has pledged to block. I doubt the governor has any idea that this is the case, nor do other governors realize that the same thing may be happening in their states.

How is such a thing possible? It’s easy! As I’ve noted previously, state education departments everywhere — including red states — are filled with leftist graduates of the same education schools currently turning out woke curricula. These education bureaucrats go to the same national conferences, drink up the uniformly leftist politics and progressivist instructional fashions, and swiftly infuse them into the standards, curricula, and regulations of their states. The political appointees who head many state education departments are often unschooled in the latest academic fashions, so tend to defer to the ridiculously biased and politically motivated “experts” they allegedly supervise. That is a big part of how schools across the country got into this mess in the first place.

South Dakota is a perfect example. There’s even a document that lays out how the pernicious practice of action civics worked its way into the state’s new draft Social Studies standards. (See the various links at the South Dakota Department of Education Civics Education webpage.) The document shows, for example, that in 2019, the South Dakota Department of Education’s “social studies specialist” attended the national conference of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the deeply left-biased national organization of social studies teachers. In 2019, NCSS had just committed itself to the newly fashionable practice of “action civics,” and the topic was a focus of the conference.

Consider this expanded version of the presidential address at that conference by Tina Lane Heafner. NCSS president Heafner touts action civics and CRT as the great new wave of social studies. (Keep in mind that this was before last summer’s woke revolution.) Heafner offers out-and-out political advocacy via action civics as the answer to the rise of “fake news” and the problems of the Trump era. (Heafner, here, means the Democratic Party’s definition of “fake news,” and is by no means referring to mainstream media bias as a conservative would see it). Heafner praises radical neo-racist Ibram X. Kendi, rejects the idea of political neutrality in the classroom, and urges her fellow teachers to ignore the complaints of parents who object to political partisanship from teachers. She openly invites teachers to create a generation of Greta Thunbergs.

Sure enough, the action-civics activities built into the new draft South Dakota state standards are drawn from the NCSS, and built with the NCSS so-called College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, with a few suggestions from South Dakota teachers thrown in. It’s also of note that the senior scholar involved in creating the revised South Dakota Social Studies standards, a University of South Dakota Associate Professor specializing in Social Studies methods, was once an official of the NCSS. You can find the various “civic engagement” activities, largely drawn from NCSS, embedded in the revised draft South Dakota Social Studies standards here. So, let’s have a look at action civics, South Dakota style.

Consider the exercise comparing “Soft Civic Action to Critical Civic Action.” (The word “Critical” is a tip-off to a neo-Marxist perspective, as in CRT, Critical Legal Studies, etc.) Students are asked to evaluate the impact of their volunteer activities, say, a food drive. The students must ask if food drives really solve the problem of people being unable to afford food. After students are shown the limits of volunteerism, they are to be introduced to the superior idea of “critical civic action” — i.e., the sort of policies that would “permanently solve” poverty. This, of course, is the typical socialist critique of volunteerism. (I guess the Soviets and Venezuelans must have “permanently solved” poverty.)

There are also exercises here that seem almost designed to turn students against the Electoral College and toward support of the admission of Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico as states. What a coincidence! These just happen to be major planks of the far-left wing of today’s Democratic Party.

Students are also urged to “participate in a dialogue as global citizens.” This is the very antithesis of the 1776 Action’s candidate pledge, which calls on our schools to cultivate the sense that Americans are “members of a national community united by our founding principles.”

The draft revised South Dakota Social Studies standards repeatedly call for the creation of a “class position statement,” or tell students to “advocate for legislation as a class.” [My emphasis.] This epitomizes the problem of action civics. Between teacher bias, peer pressure, and the machinations of the leftist non-profit groups who generously “help” students with their action-civics projects, conservative students end up intimidated and silenced by class-wide political projects. Who wants to be left out of all that fun? This is one of the reasons why public schools need to stay non-partisan and reject action civics.

The leftist bias of most activities in the standards is patent. Students are supposed to “raise awareness of how minority groups face bias in the mainstream media.” So, this is mainstream media bias? What universe are South Dakota’s education bureaucrats living in? Students are also told to “create a press release defending membership of the United States in a specific international organization.” Students are charged with studying global warming and then “debating” “whether there are civic responsibilities related to this issue.” Talk about a stacked debate question. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Yes, there are a few more moderate- or even traditional-leaning activities, no doubt from some of the South Dakota teachers who were consulted (although even in red states, many teachers are substantially to the left of their communities). The bottom line is that the lion’s share of the “civic engagement” activities tied to the new South Dakota Social Studies draft standards are clearly on the left. This is what has happened to America’s schools, even in the red states.

To be clear, I am not blaming Kristi Noem for this. The same thing happens in pretty much every state in this country, red or blue, regardless of who’s governor. Now that she has signed the wonderful 1776 Action pledge to fight action civics and CRT, however, we need rapid and decisive action from Governor Noem. She needs to sink the new, leftist South Dakota Social Studies draft standards (the unpacked document created by last summer’s work group and the NCSS C3 Framework used to create them), filled as they are with action civics and lessons tied to those exercises, and start over.

Above all, Noem needs to turn to respected education experts outside the club of leftists who dominate South Dakota’s Department of Education to craft new standards. Now that would be a pathbreaking move.

Governor Noem’s pledge to fight action civics and CRT is one of the very best and most encouraging moves I’ve seen by a political leader in a long time. It’s already had good effects in Virginia, and with luck, the pledge will soon spread nationally. As good as it is, however, that pledge won’t mean anything if Noem doesn’t take the steps necessary to truly follow through. We need state-level legislation, executive directives to the Department of Education to reject all forms of CRT, action civics, and related funding, and the deep-sixing of those terrible draft Social Studies standards (and the C3 Framework used to create them) that embody everything Governor Noem has just pledged herself to battle.

If she does follow through, Noem can rightly be acclaimed a hero, and a model for governors in every other state in the Union.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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