South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is getting a failing grade from education experts and Native Americans who are accusing her of politicizing what is being taught in the state’s schools.
Noem, who is running for re-election while also touring the country to promote her availability for the 2024 Republican ticket, has released a set of social studies standards that would be used to craft lesson plans in South Dakota classrooms.
The state will pay up to $200,000 to William Morrisey to help shape these standards and select committee members to prepare them. Morrisey is a former professor of politics at Hillsdale College—a deeply conservative private Christian college in Michigan that is a bastion of far-right thinking.
Ian Fury, Noem’s former state spokesman who now works for her re-election campaign, is a Hillsdale graduate.
Many people in the education sector and Native American community are pushing back on this program, saying that Noem is trying to mandate her political and social views into schools.
State Rep. Jamie Smith, Noem’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, said teachers are telling him they are not pleased with this proposed set of standards, calling it “way out of line” with what students should and can learn.
“Professional educators in the state of South Dakota were not asked to do this,” said Smith, who taught for seven years and said he comes from a family of educators.
Smith said it is obvious Noem is more interested in politics than pedagogy.
“It’s totally politicized,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “To say it’s not is a mockery of everybody’s education.”
This process goes back almost two years.
“Our common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world,” Noem said in January 2021 when she announced the new standards would be revised.
This is done every seven years. In 2021, Noem disbanded a committee that had prepared a new version after it was reported the state had removed several references to Native American history.
Noem originally said she would restart the process, then announced she was disbanding the 46-member commission that was charged with reviewing and revising standards, and replacing it with a 15-member board hand-picked by her.
“I want to ensure we propose standards that accurately reflect the values of South Dakota,” Noem said on Oct. 1. “Our kids deserve to learn both America’s and South Dakota’s true and honest history, taught in a balanced context that doesn’t pit our children against each other on the basis of race, sex, or background. More work needs to be done to get this right, and we are committed to seeing that process through.”
Noem named Mark Miller to chair the committee. Miller, who previously worked as a lawyer in Florida, has been an aide to the governor, serving first as general legal counsel, then as her “unborn child” advocate before being named chief of staff in November. He was the fifth person to hold that title in less than three years.
The new committee included Dylan Kessler of Aberdeen, a former staffer to Sen. John Thune. Kessler does not have a background in education—but he did graduate from Hillsdale College. Other members of the committee include state historian Ben Jones, who was Noem’s secretary of education, and two legislators, Rep. Tamara St. John (R-Sisseton) and Sen. John Wiik (R-Big Stone).
Four of the committee members are educators, including two who teach in South Dakota, one who teaches in Nebraska, and one South Dakota school administrator.
When the new committee was named, an Oceti Sakowin March for Our Children was held at the state Capitol. Oceti Sakowin Oyate is a term for the People of Seven Council Fires, also called the Sioux Nation.
Two members of the committee are Native American: Rep. St. John, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and Joe Circle Bear of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Nick Tilsen, resident and CEO of NDN Collective, a Rapid City-based Indigenous-led organization, labeled it “a curriculum with a political agenda” that is simply unacceptable.
“We organized, we called them out, and they still came back with a watered-down, colonial version of our shared history,” Tilsen said in a release. “This is why we have to build community-based solutions for Native students.
“We’re not going to wait for South Dakota’s government to continue playing games with our children’s lives. At our school, we will teach accurate history, and work to turn our young people into the warriors of tomorrow,” he said. “Our children will be armed with the truth—it’s the only way to battle ignorance and dismantle white supremacy.”
Mary Bowman, the founder of Oceti Sakowin Community Academy, said it is a “white-washed lie about our state’s history” that would not provide accurate lessons for students.
“Youth need a well-rounded education that provides an accurate portrayal of history—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Reflecting on the mistakes we make allows us to truly learn and become better,” Bowman said.
The South Dakota Department of Education said the goal of the revised social studies was to provide “sound skills for making sense of the past, understanding their neighbors, earning a livelihood, and exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizenship with prudence.”
“These standards raise the bar for the breadth and depth of civics and history education,” Noem said. “They feature a true, honest, and balanced approach to American history that is not influenced by political agendas. And under these standards, our students will focus more on Native American history and culture than ever before.”
But professional educators think the governor turned in shoddy work. School Administrators of South Dakota Executive Director Rob Monson told The Daily Beast that he hopes this set of standards does not end up being the final version.
Monson said the South Dakota Board of Education Standards, which is appointed by Noem, will hold four hearings starting in September, before they are finalized and social studies and elementary teachers begin training next summer.
“We are hoping to see some changes before they get to that point,” he said.
The standards board could endorse the standards and move them forward without any changes, Monson admits.
“It possibly could but we’re hoping we have enough public opposition, people that show up and voice their opinion, that’ll have a heavy weight, too,” he said.
Monson said educators have several concerns about the standards unveiled earlier this week.
“I think the main thing is... just a lot of rote memorization and just things that really are probably above the comprehension and ability of first, second and third graders,” he said.
Monson said some elements focusing on Native American history in these proposed standards are an improvement from the earlier version. But he said it’s still not an ideal package.
“What we’d like to see happen… these Native American pieces… be taken back to the standards that were brought forward a year and a half ago by the actual committee that typically reviews these, and incorporate them into those and move those standards forward,” he said.
In addition to a focus on Oceti Sakowin Oyate, the new version of the standards references the Mandan, Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow and Hidatsa tribes. South Dakota, with a population of around 915,000 people, has more around 75,000 Native Americans, one of the highest Native percentages in the country.
One question that remains unanswered is why professor Morrisey played such a key role instead of a South Dakota scholar or historian.
“Well, that’s a great question that you’d probably have to ask Gov. Kristi Noem,” said Monson, who was an elementary principal for 15 years in Parkston, South Dakota.
Noem did not respond to questions sent to both her state spokesman and her campaign.
Fury, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political economy from the private school, said he never took a class from Morrisey.
In June, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, who also serves as a professor of history and government, made sharply critical comments about the state of American education during a private reception for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
“The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said. “The philosophic understanding at the heart of modern education is enslavement…. They’re messing with people’s children, and they feel entitled to do anything to them. You will see how education destroys generations of people. It’s devastating. It’s like the plague.”
His comments were reported by NewsChannel 5 in Nashville, which received a secretly recorded copy. Arnn, a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation Board of Directors, was named to the 1776 Commission established by former President Donald Trump, a political ally of Noem, who signed a “1776 pledge to save our schools” in May 2021.
Noem also continued her attacks on critical race theory. In November, she signed an executive order banning it from being taught in South Dakota schools.
“These ideas are un-American. We are ‘one nation, under God, indivisible,’ yet critical race theory seeks to divide us based on inaccurate revisions to our nation’s history,” Noem said. “Our students should learn America’s true history by studying both our triumphs and our mistakes. Only then will students learn that America remains the shining example of exceptionalism throughout the history of the world.”
She signed a bill on March 21 to ban mandatory college training and orientations based on CRT. On Monday, she said the state was “proactively removing critical race theory before it has any opportunity to take hold in our schools. We are taking action to promote America’s true and honest history, including the history and culture of our Native American tribes, without any influence of critical race theory or other divisive concepts.”
On May 3, 2021, an op-ed written by Noem and Dr. Ben Carson, who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump, was published.
“Critical race theory is a deliberate means to sow division and cripple our nation from within—one brainwashed and resentful student at a time. And while foreign adversaries like China and Russia surely work to inflame our divisions, we are doing this to ourselves,” it stated. “Whether or not we can defeat this ascendant anti-Americanism is perhaps the most important cultural challenge of our lifetime, and fortunately a growing number of courageous parents, grandparents and teachers understand the stakes and have begun to speak out and push back.”
In January, Gov. Lee announced a partnership with Hillsdale College during his annual State of the State address. He said state tax dollars will be used to set up charter schools in Tennessee.
Arnn said he wanted to see drastic changes in who teaches America’s students.
“Here’s a key thing that we’re going to try to do,” he said at the Tennessee event. “We are going to try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.”