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On its second try, civics exceptionalism bill goes stealth

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On its second try, civics exceptionalism bill goes stealth

Feb 24, 2024 | 9:41 am ET
By Dana Hess
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On its second try, civics exceptionalism bill goes stealth
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State Rep. Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, speaks in the state House chamber on Feb. 7, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

According to some South Dakota lawmakers, college students need a big, fat lesson in civics. By “civics” they mean a lesson in the greatness of America. That lesson keeps getting closer to a reality as House Bill 1213 makes its way through the Legislature.

HB 1213 would create a civic engagement center at Black Hills State University. The center would “provide undergraduate students with the foundation to succeed as lifelong citizens and future leaders in political, economic and civic life.” It would do this with classes and programs, civic-focused events, experiential learning and civic programming.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Odenbach, a Spearfish Republican, brought similar legislation last year. That bill, which twice missed passage in the House by just one vote, called for the creation of the Center for Exceptionalism at BHSU. “Exceptionalism” is a buzzword in conservative circles, calling for the teaching of United States history with an emphasis on its superiority when compared with other nations.

Last year’s bill called for specific actions from the Center for Exceptionalism that included creating K-12 curriculum that would “balance critical thinking with love of country.” That version of the center would also have developed public university courses comparing communist countries with western democracies and comparing socialist economies with free-market economies.

Lawmaker tries again to create civics center, less ideological this time

(For those of you keeping score at home, last year I predicted that Odenbach’s failed bill would be resurrected.)

In testimony before the House Education Committee, Odenbach said this year’s version takes a more “generalist” approach. Another word he might have used for this year’s bill is “vague.” By scrapping “exceptionalism” and being light on specifics, Odenbach may believe that his civics lesson plan has a greater chance of passage. He could be right. So far, it has made its way unanimously through both the House Education and House Appropriations committees, and through the House of Representatives on a vote of 63-5.

However, the vague nature of the legislation falls away when lawmakers start talking about what this year’s version of the center will do. Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Tony Venhuizen, a Sioux Falls Republican, said students need to know “why America is an affirmative good.” Rep. Fred Deutsch, a Florence Republican, said students need to “learn about the greatness of our democracy.” That sounds remarkably like the “exceptionalism” label that Odenbach is trying to avoid this time.

In his testimony, Odenbach said the center he is proposing would work in conjunction with the Center for Public History and Civic Engagement at Northern State University. This duplication of services seems to fly in the face of what the Legislature was trying to accomplish only a few years ago.

In 2020, Sen. Ryan Maher sponsored Senate Bill 55, which was originally an attempt to require BHSU and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology to share administrations. In a 2020 interview, the Isabel Republican said his legislation didn’t go far enough. He also wanted to combine the administrative services of NSU, Dakota State University and South Dakota State University.

As often happens in the Legislature, Maher didn’t get exactly what he wanted. Instead of combined administrative services at two Black Hills universities, he got a task force assembled to study the operations and functions of institutions of higher education. The task force was to seek efficiencies in the Board of Regents system, including a review of the duplication of program offerings.

Members of the task force took their job seriously with six meetings of the full task force and 20 subcommittee meetings generating a report that tallies more than 60 pages. The report’s executive summary offered 35 different areas where the BOR system might find savings.

It should be noted that Maher is the prime Senate sponsor of the new attempt to create a BHSU center for the study of civics. It looks like, in some cases, a duplication of services in higher education is warranted.

HB 1213’s vague wording is matched only by its vague funding. It was originally pitched as needing $880,000 and three full-time employees. In the House Appropriations Committee that was dropped to $200,000 with the equally vague explanation that it was now a “scaled back version.”

While they are scaling things back, appropriators may want to look to the example of the center that already exists at NSU. Administrators there seemed to have been able to create that center using existing resources, without going to the Legislature for a special appropriation. Perhaps lawmakers should take the $880,000 or $200,000 and invest it in the center that already exists, upholding the standards of the task force that sought to stamp out the duplication of services and programs.

Odenbach may be taking a subtler approach this time, but his efforts are still built on the notion that just taking a class in government or history isn’t enough. Somehow students have to be taught to appreciate that government and savor the best parts of its history.

Odenbach’s bill goes to the Senate next. Let’s hope lawmakers in that chamber can see HB 1213 for what it is, a stealth attempt to slip exceptionalism into the college curriculum.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated since its initial publication with the correct first name of Sen. Ryan Maher.