Analysis: The education culture wars go full circle, and head for a showdown

Idaho’s education culture wars will come full circle Thursday.

That’s when Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s education task force meets again, focusing this time on higher education.

Where Idaho’s debate began, two years ago.

There’s no disputing that the controversy over critical race theory and school indoctrination has consumed a lot of education policy oxygen in 2021 — fueled nationally by Fox News and other conservative networks, and stoked locally by the Idaho Freedom Foundation and its hardline legislative allies.

This year, Freedom Foundation-aligned lawmakers killed a three-year, $18 million federal early education grant and held a $1.1 billion teacher salary budget hostage. But the battle lines over higher education politics were drawn into the map in 2019.

And the debate hasn’t changed much since then.

July 9, 2019: a shot across the bow

On Marlene Tromp’s ninth day as president at Boise State University, she received a pointed greeting from more than a third of the Idaho House of Representatives.

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp. Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews

“I don’t view the current direction of Boise State to be in the tradition of what higher education has been, or should be, in Idaho,” wrote state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, in a letter co-signed by 27 Republican colleagues. “As legislators, we will seek and support academic excellence that does not pursue social or political agendas or incur additional costs.”

Interestingly, Ehardt’s letter did not address critical race theory or indoctrination, the terms that dominate the education debate in 2021. Instead, the lawmakers criticized a menu of diversity and inclusion programs that predated Tromp’s arrival, including multicultural events such as Rainbow Graduation and Black Graduation, a graduate school preparation course geared toward underrepresented student groups and graduate fellowships for “underrepresented minority students.”

The letter foreshadowed the controversy that has followed Tromp through her 25 months at Boise State. And it signaled that a cadre of House conservatives were ready to start voting down education budgets.

Only 23 of those 28 co-signers are still in the House. But if anything, the chamber is more conservative than it was in 2019, after hardliners captured additional seats in the 2020 elections.

March 2020-May 2021: the budget battles

The culture wars began to play out on the House floor in March 2020. Even as the coronavirus pandemic began to reach Idaho, and as some lawmakers fled the Statehouse over health concerns, the higher education budget became a major impediment to closing the session. The House voted down two budget bills before finally agreeing on a third version — with 20 of the 26 no votes coming from co-signers of the letter to Tromp, including Ehardt herself.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls

The same budget later passed the Senate 31-0.

If anything, 2020 only hinted at what would follow in 2021. The House rejected the early education money, leaving a grant from the Trump administration on the table. The House voted down the first versions of the higher education and teacher salary budgets. It wasn’t necessarily about the dollars. In the end, the House actually approved a larger teacher salary budget, after lawmakers passed a separate bill calling out critical race theory.

The growing uproar over critical race theory — once an obscure academic concept — certainly factored into the battles that marked the 2021 session. But the backlash against higher education, beginning with the letter to Tromp and growing through the 2020 Idaho elections, provided a template for a more far-reaching campaign against education.

Summer 2021: recurring themes

The emotions from the 2021 session, including frustrations and fears, come through in some emails to the State Board of Education.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin announces her candidacy for governor at the Statehouse in May. Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews

Using the state public records law, Idaho Education News requested all emails to the State Board containing the word “indoctrination” or the phrase “critical race theory,” written since Jan. 1. (Idaho Education News filed similar requests with McGeachin, Gov. Brad Little and the State Department of Education.)

The State Board released 38 emails, with 30 voicing opposition to critical race theory or indoctrination. And 17 of these began with boilerplate wording, replicated in full or sometimes changed slightly.

The template: “Please weed out any and all political, medical, and religious indoctrination in our public schools before it gains an even stronger foothold in ldaho. While it may not yet be happening in every classroom in every school, it lS happening in many classrooms, schools, districts, and universities in ldaho.”

One emailer acknowledged the obvious, saying the emails were part of a coordinated campaign while refusing to divulge the source of the wording. It’s unclear whether the Freedom Foundation was that source. The group, which routinely ignores media requests, did not respond to an inquiry from Idaho Education News.

Regardless of the root source, the form emails illustrate one point. Two years into this debate, the Freedom Foundation’s assertion of widespread classroom indoctrination have been accepted as fact by a number of Idahoans — despite a lack of specifics, and despite the State Board’s categorical denials.

August 2021: the next chapter

The State Board also released eight emails commenting on a new proposed policy on diversity and inclusion at Idaho’s four-year campuses. Under this policy, “Each institution shall strive to create environments in which diversity and inclusion are valued, promoted, and embraced, in alignment with the goal of achieving educational equity.”

State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich. Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews

Several comments came from current or retired teachers. Six commenters urged the State Board to approve the policy — or strengthen it by covering LGBT students. Two commenters opposed the proposal.

A diversity and inclusion policy is not a critical race theory policy, although all of these terms tend to be thrown about as if they are interchangeable. But diversity and inclusion programs prompted lawmakers to write their letter to Tromp two years ago. And diversity and inclusion initiatives are unlikely to win support from McGeachin’s hand-picked indoctrination task force. The group is slated to spend 30 minutes at Thursday’s meeting discussing the State Board proposal.

The State Board is scheduled to vote on its diversity and inclusion proposal at its Aug. 25-26 meeting. That same week, the McGeachin task force is expected to hold its final meeting and issue its own recommendations.

The debate has gone full circle. Now, a showdown looms.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. In the interest of timeliness, this week’s analysis was published on Wednesday, July 28. 

Coming Thursday: Look to Idaho Education News for full coverage and live blogging from the education task force meeting.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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