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South Dakota legislative committee punts, for now, on letter warning against 'Wokism' grants

The Joint Appropriations Committee on Wednesday said they would defer until next month's meeting debate on a letter seeking to restrain members of the Board of Regents and Board of Technical Education from applying for any grants "whatsoever" imbued by critical understandings of racism in America.

FSA South Dakota capitol

PIERRE, S.D. — A letter entertained by South Dakota lawmakers that would discourage public university officials from applying for federal grants steeped in so-called "Wokism" will return in a month, after an appropriations committee cited evolutions in federal grant protocols and passed on approving the letter.

The text of the drafted letter, which was circulated to legislators prior to the Wednesday, July 21, meeting, calls educational curricula that seeks to better understand the pervasiveness of racism "'Wokism', otherwise known as 'Critical Social Justice,' neo-Marxism, Cultural 'Marxism,' among other names."

The letter, which has not yet been approved and, even if signed, would not carry the weight of law, declares that "no applications whatsoever" should go forward until lawmakers in Pierre can "address and act upon legislative initiatives related to these topics" next year.

But at an interim Joint Appropriations Committee meeting Wednesday, chairman Sen. Jean Hunhoff , R-Yankton, said the full committee will wait until summer's end to address the letter, citing "new verbiage" from the U.S. Department of Education.

"I'd like to have that information before us," said Hunhoff, in explaining a month-long delay to understand the Education Department's "different verbiage" in a civics grant program that has come under fire from conservatives for invoking projects such as the New York Times' 1619 Project .


Hunhoff also said the Board of Regents and Board of Technical Education — the letter's addressees — should have an opportunity to respond to the committee.

Prior to Wednesday's meeting, Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher told Forum News Service he'd be "listening closely to the conversation" and would "reserve comment" until after the Joint Appropriations Committee speaks on the issue.

The letter as drafted threatens a bill for next year's legislative cycle that will clamp down on federal grant applications for a wide range of disciplines, including staples of humanities departments, such as "post-colonialism," a foundational critical lens in literary and history fields for decades, as well as intersectionalism, and even a field the letter calls "fat studies."

A member of Joint Appropriations Committee, Sen. Ryan Maher , has previously warned regents staff that a "storm" of criticism from legislators would be coming their way on gender and racial emphases in higher education. The letter's rhetoric is also in-line with similar politicians who've sought to crackdown on evolutions in history and civics teaching within the academy.

Just last week, Rep. Sue Peterson , R-Sioux Falls, announced she'd stepped down from a task force updating civics and social studies standards for the state's K-12 system.

While Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson and State Historian Ben Jones have lamented a federal grant that initially invoked texts influenced by critical race theory as potential reading materials, Sen. Reynold Nesiba , a Sioux Falls Democrat, pointed out on Twitter over the weekend that the grant in question has stipulated local control over curriculum.

A blog post last week from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona defended the American History and Civics grant funding of "robust civic engagement and informed public discourse," and said "invitational priorities" will not earn any application "competitive advantage."

On Wednesday, a campus free speech group, Joe Cohn , Legislative & Policy Director for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told FNS in an email that "[l]egislators should not be using the power of the purse to restrict scholarship and research they oppose."


Instead, Cohn said he'd engage members of the Joint Appropriations Committee to find alternative routes to fight "potential discrimination in higher education."

Next month's meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Ryan Maher
Ryan Maher

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