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Idaho House rushes to OK bill against ‘critical race theory’ ahead of education budgets

Hayat Norimine, Nicole Foy
·5 min read

A bill targeting “critical race theory” meant to quell a faction of Republicans — and help pass mandated education funding — was fast-tracked to the Idaho House floor on Thursday. It passed along party lines.

The bill would censor certain discussions about race in classrooms. The new section of Idaho code states that tenets of “critical race theory” divide people and are “contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho.”

Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, who sponsored the bill, said that it would help freedom of thought in schools.

Critics said the bill would have a chilling effect on controversial topics, and State Board of Education officials said policies are being made by GOP legislators based on hearsay and presumption, rather than what’s actually happening in schools. Board officials said they have not received any formal complaints about critical race theory.

Under the bill, public schools would not be allowed to “compel” students to believe that members of a certain race “are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past” by members of that same race. The State Board of Education would not be allowed to fund any teachings prohibited in the bill.

Republicans insisted that it would not prohibit educators from teaching anything.

Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, who has been a certified teacher for four decades, criticized the direction the GOP-dominated Legislature has gone toward education.

“Our schools — at all levels — are the heart of our communities,” Toone said in a statement Thursday. “Funding education should not be made contingent on restricting academic freedom. The First Amendment protects students, teachers and schools; this is not needed.”

Throughout the session, a group of House Republicans fighting against so-called “indoctrination” of students and critical race theory shared anecdotes they claim to have heard about white students being shamed or about Donald Trump supporters being demeaned for their viewpoints. They have used their concerns about critical race theory being taught in classrooms to vote against education budgets — the passage of which are mandatory for the legislative session to end.

The American Bar Association says critical race theory “cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice.”

The theory “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past,” according to the American Bar Association’s website. “Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, is one of the legislators claiming that critical race theory is a problem in Idaho education.
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, is one of the legislators claiming that critical race theory is a problem in Idaho education.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said teachings about critical race theory are a “poison” to schools and have been creeping into the system for years.

“The longer we wait, the more our kids are indoctrinated with this garbage,” Scott said on the House floor.

Gov. says ‘it’s time to get back on track’

Gov. Brad Little, in a broadcast Thursday, encouraged any parents with classroom complaints to contact their local school board — which sets curriculum. He said the education system needs investment and support after a challenging year in a pandemic.

“It’s time to get back on track,” Little said Thursday. “That is what parents and employers expect and deserve.”

During debate on the bill, lawmakers said it was a way to move forward with the education budgets they must pass before they adjourn. On Thursday morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held a discussion about new education appropriation bills.

Senators will need to approve the bill next.

Several GOP lawmakers in favor of the bill cited concerns over Democratic President Joe Biden’s proposed rules that stated that a “national reckoning with systemic racism have highlighted the urgency of improving racial equity throughout our society, including in our education system.”

Kurt Liebich, incoming State Board of Education president, was critical of the Legislature’s approach.

“The bills that are being proposed to address this perceived issue in many cases are attacking freedom of speech as protected under our Constitution, or they’re going after the principle of academic freedom,” he said.

The State Board of Education also said it will review its policies around “academic freedom.” Board officials plan to develop ways to measure student satisfaction and the “campus climate,” according to a news release.

‘Direct attack’ on education system

Liebich said he assumed that this session, the Legislature would be dealing with the same topics as the board: how to help students and teachers recover learning and achievement gaps brought on by the pandemic.

Instead, Liebich recounted during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday, Republican legislators have killed a pre-K funding bill intended to improve literacy, a K-12 career ladder bill for increasing teacher pay, and higher education budget bills because of claims that critical race theory and other topics were permeating Idaho’s education system.

Diversity classes at Boise State University last month were suspended over a complaint that alleged a white student had been shamed over the color of their skin. The classes were reinstated eight days later. The Statesman so far has been unable to find evidence of the specific incident.

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said the Republicans’ bill lacks any clarity on what shouldn’t be taught. “Critical race theory” is left undefined in the legislation, he pointed out.

“That has been the debate in the Legislature,” Liebich said. “It’s had a significant impact on how our education system is perceived in this state. The claims go so far as to say what we’re trying to do is indoctrinate kids — which, to me, is a direct attack on this board.”