SIOUX FALLS (AP) – South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday issued an executive order instructing the Department of Education to review teacher trainings, content standards and other educational materials to ensure they are devoid of “divisive concepts” on race, resorting to her gubernatorial power after a bill she touted as banning so-called critical race theory from K-12 classrooms failed to pass the Legislature this year.
The Republican governor cast the order as restricting critical race theory from classrooms, but its power is limited to the Department of Education, which produces content standards, teacher trainings and other material for South Dakota public schools. School boards set much of their own policy and curricula.
“Our children will not be taught that they are racists or that they are victims, and they will not be compelled to feel responsible for the mistakes of their ancestors," Noem said in a statement announcing the order that lists six “divisive concepts” about race.
The Associated School Boards of South Dakota, which criticized Noem's bill as unnecessary and unclear during the legislative session, declined to immediately comment on the order.
A Republican-controlled Senate committee last month rejected Noem's bill, and some lawmakers on the committee suggested Noem should use the power of her office to influence the state's education content standards rather than push a law banning certain ideas from classrooms.
The ACLU of South Dakota accused Noem of “skirting” the legislative process by issuing the order when a similar proposal was already rejected by the Legislature. Jett Jonelis, the organization's advocacy manager, said in a statement that the move was “a subversion of our entire democratic process."
The bill drew hours of debate this year, both from those who championed it as a repudiation of critical race theory and critics who said it would silence and sanitize the most painful truths of U.S. history.
Sen. Troy Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who was the lone Democrat on the Senate committee that rejected Noem's bill, worried that the order would ban the teaching of atrocities against Native American tribes in the state's history, as well as “perpetuate” racism in the state.
As Noem pitched the bill in the Legislature, she insisted it would not water down historical facts like the Wounded Knee Massacre. She said Tuesday the order's intent was to ensure history lessons include “both our triumphs and our mistakes.”
But Heinert asserted that the state continues to grapple with racism, pointing to a recent social media comment from the owner of a Rapid City hotel saying she wanted to ban Native Americans from the premises. He said Noem's order would stifle desperately-needed conversations about race.
“This is nothing more than political theater at its finest," Heinert added.
During the last year, critical race theory has morphed from an obscure academic discussion point on the left into a political rallying cry on the right. And as Noem has positioned herself for reelection and a potential 2024 White House bid, she has used the concept as a campaign talking point.
Her campaign on Tuesday also released a video of her touting the success of a separate bill that bans the state’s public universities from using training and orientation material that compels people to feel “discomfort” based on their race.
“Going forward, critical race theory cannot be taught in our universities,” Noem said in the video of her speaking at a town hall event.
But that's a false claim. In fact, the bill specifically states it does not apply to university courses.
Even her policy advisor, Allen Cambon, pointed that out in March as he pressed a skeptical Senate committee to endorse it.
“You can teach a class on (Critical Race Theory), you can even offer a training that teaches (Critical Race Theory),” Cambon told senators, adding that the bill keeps public universities from requiring any trainings that teach the concept or compelling students to endorse it.