The House Education Committee took up House Bill 1153 yesterday. Prime sponsor Rep. Jim Bolin (R-16/Canton) stepped forward to confirm my suspicion that the plan to forbid the Department of Education from participating in developing Common Core history standards bears the faint aroma of Tea bags. After opposing testimony from the Department of Education's Wade Pogany, House Education voted twice but failed to get actionable majorities. Committee chair Rep. Thomas Brunner thus deferred action for another meeting.

Picture of Representative Jim Bolin

Rep. Jim Bolin(R-16/Canton)

In his testimony, Rep. Bolin warned that the Common Core State Standards Initiative, started by the National Governors Association (read: Mike Rounds, South Dakotan) and the various state boards of education is actually a precursor to effort to homogenize schools across United States and an effort to break down local control. Bolin, a former history teacher, said that his field of expertise is the one area of study that is most subject to interpretation and debate, unlike cut and dried topics like math. History, said Bolin, is the one subject where "the culture and meaning of a nation is presented in a logical and organized form."

Then Bolin started walking the Teabagger's plank. History, he said is "the one place where the concept of American exceptionalism can and should be taught." He started looking for Nancy Pelosi behind the curtains:

...do we want educators and individuals from San Francisco, Chicago, and New York making decisions or influencing the curriculum which will guide the instruction of our children in South Dakota as to the history of our nation and its meaning in the world? Wouldn't we rather have our educators here in our own state making these decision for our own students? [Rep. Jim Bolin, testimony, House Education Committee, 2011.02.02]

Of course, Bolin had no problem suggesting we let Texas influence our curriculum, saying we should join the Lone Star State in rejecting history standards. Texas must be part of the "heartland," which I suspect is a code word for "the Real America":

Do not follow educators from areas of the country with views that are antithetical to the values of the heartland to begin the process of controlling our curriculum, at least in the vital area of history [Bolin, 2011.02.02].

Bolin then urged the committee to reject the advice of "the representatives of the education establishment," some of whom happen to come from the heartland right here in South Dakota...

...like Mr. Wade Pogany, director of the Office of Assessment and Technology Systems for the South Dakota Department of Education. As far as I know, Mr. Pogany is not from San Francisco, Chicago, New York, or any other evil non-"heartland" place. But Bolin should keep an eye on Pogany's clear anti-heartland values.

Actually, Pogany cautioned the committee that HB 1153 would set a "dangerous precedent" and actually take away local control. Pogany noted that the states started the Common Core effort in part to save money by combining forced on the complicate process of developing curriculum standards. He then proceeded in great debate coach fashion (in better days, Pogany coached the Aberdeen Golden Eagle debate team) to outline four reasons we all should oppose Bolin's bill:

  1. There are no history standards to warrant concern. The states aren't working on common history standards. As Pogany's mom always said, "Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you."
  2. We already have checks and balances in the process to allow the debate Bolin wants over history standards.
  3. It's bad policy to tie hands of state board of education. To tell the Board of Education they can't even participate in discussions about standards actually erodes local control. It prevents the board from holding hearings and seeking public input to empower teachers and citizens.
  4. It's bad policy to write statutes about a problem that doesn't exist. (Actually, Wade, I think you already covered this in point #1.)

Bolin returned to the mic for a somewhat bumbling, stammering rebuttal. He urged the committee to go to the Common Core Standards website, where they would see that Pogany is technically correct, but there are proposals being developed to begin this process. It's in the works, Bolin assured us, seeing the bogeymen of his imagination around every unexplored corner.

Bolin then warned that the constant references on the CCSSI website to fact that all these standards aren't coming from the federal government make him think that the standards folks are protesting too much. Only in the minds of the politically desperate or intellectually dishonest are statements that we aren't doing something proof that we are doing something.

Picture of Representative Mark Venner

Rep. Mark Venner (R-24/Pierre)

Rep. Bolin did conclude with one non-nutty point: he said he spent entire life teaching American history and the South Dakota standards are fine. Here, when Bolin stepped away from the right-wing karaoke, he actually made sense. Rep. Mark Venner (R-24/Pierre) followed this sensible line in the committee discussion, noting that he when taught math (yeah!), he taught from the heart. Standards piled on from above, said Rep. Venner, just make it harder to teach. To that, I say "Hear hear!"

But under that logic, why not drop all such standards and just let teachers teach? That clearly is not Rep. Bolin's true intent. He acknowledges that South Dakota has already accepted Common Core math and English standards, and he declines to reject them. He'd rather fuss about possible but currently non-existent standards than the existing standards that have already established the beachhead for San Franciscan and Chicagoan curriculum invaders to corrupt our youth. Bolin's blather about the uniquely subjective nature of history is as fallacious as his empty talk of American exceptionalism. Rep. Venner himself protested that math isn't so cut-and-dried. English is filled with discussion of language and literature, not to mention all the dangerous ideas in books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath. If those vague but definitely evil forces on the East and West Coast can find a way to pollute our children's minds just by writing a few history standards, they can surely do so with standards in other fields as well.

Picture of Representative Larry Lucas

Rep. Larry Lucas (D-26A/Mission)

But really, that's just nutty talk. Another former teacher on the committee, Rep. Larry Lucas (D-26A/Mission) said he considers HB 1153 micromanagement of the Department of Education and said the Legislature should focus instead on the big picture of adequately funding the schools (hallelujah!).

Picture of Representative Roger Hunt

Rep. Roger Hunt(R-10/Brandon)

Of all people, Rep. Roger Hunt (R-10/Brandon) spoke against the bill. He acknowledged his own provincial proclivities, saying he's deeply concerned about East and West Coasters subverting South Dakota values. But even he couldn't brook the "overreaching" nature of a bill that tells the Department of Education it can't even participate in discussions about common history standards.

A "Do Pass" motion got seven yeas and six nays, but Reps. Elliott and Perry were out of the room, so that motion was one vote shy of a committee majority. A motion to kill HB 1153 failed, so the bill hangs in limbo until the committee takes another swing at it with everyone in the room (Elliott! Perry! Get back to work!).

If conservatives like Bolin oppose voluntary nationwide standards, they should get consistent and oppose all such standards in all areas. I agree wholeheartedly with Rep. Venner's statement that these standards don't do much to help smart, dedicated teachers improve their daily teaching. So let's focus the discussion of standards and every other education issue before the Legislature on helping teachers do their jobs, not on pointless pontificating about "heartland" values.

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Update 2011.02.04 14:17 CST: But we've got to remember, we're all neighbors. My friend at the Displaced Plainsman suggests I was a little too hard on his friend Jim Bolin, an admonishment I do not take lightly. LK, JB, me, heck, even Wade and Sibby should all sit down for pizza and talk this out.