Pam Johnsen, Mia Miller and Stefanie Holcomb watched in surprise as their newly founded education-based political action committee attracted hundreds of members within months.
Issues that boiled over during the pandemic had resonated with other parents, the women found.
The Blaine County trio co-founded Push Back Idaho, a political action committee oriented toward influencing K-12 education policy. The organization started with 12 members in 2021 and has gained over 200 members in less than a year.
The women founded the organization on constitutional values of limited rights and natural law after watching debates over mask policies, school closures and curricula, said Miller. They believed parents’ concerns were not being taken seriously.
“We focused on education because that was where people were most concerned,” said Johnsen. “COVID was still very much in play, due to masks and school closures, a lot of things came to be discovered not only across the country, but in Idaho and Blaine County.”
Johnsen is referring to the surge in pushback against school curricula that occurred during the pandemic. As schools went online, parents who suddenly became a part of their child’s learning grew concerned about the alleged teaching of “liberal indoctrination,” including Critical Race Theory (CRT), a framework used in law schools to examine and acknowledge institutional racism, and social emotional learning (SEL), which teaches students emotional and interpersonal skills.
“Parents were listening, looking at homework, looking at the classroom,” said Miller. “They got to see what is on the wall, see the links to sites they don’t want their children to see. They were more involved.”
The Push Back Idaho founders say they have spent most of the last year learning about these controversial topics and watching debates occur around the country. They attribute the lack of qualifications and poor critical thinking skills among young adults to the teaching of CRT, SEL and other topics outside of core standards.
“We hear parents saying, ‘my child is experiencing something called SEL, but can’t do multiplication tables,’” said Johnsen. “People are not happy with the displacement of core teaching with the inclusion of children into something parents didn’t ask for.”
The solution, the women say, is school choice.
“School choice. Its time has come. The topic is not going away,” said Johnsen.
Why school choice
School choice allows parents to decide which K-12 option is best for their child. This often includes pushes to expand schooling options beyond traditional public schools and reroute public education funds to follow the child. The theory, according to Johnsen, is that as schools compete for students and resources, they will improve or meet the desires of parents.
According to Miller and Johnsen, school choice would allow parents to pick and choose the “world views” and “civic virtues” their children learn in school, while maintaining the same core subject matter as all other schools. They argue that this would lead to greater equality in education, since alternative schooling options would become more normalized and affordable.
Critics of the school choice movement argue that diverting funds would weaken public schools, which are often the only accessible options for many students due to charter lottery systems, household income and location.
Some critics also argue that forcing schools to compete based on a values system would create a dynamic in which all schools shift toward the values of the dominant demographic, while minorities get left behind.
How Push Back Idaho pushes back
As a PAC, Push Back Idaho focuses on influencing legislation and legislators.
The organization has advocated for bills in the Legislature, including HB699’s “Hope and Opportunity Scholarship,” which would have allowed families to use state funds for private school tuition and fees. House Education Committee killed the bill earlier this year with an 8-7 vote.
“People in the Legislature were against it was because it would result in a diversion of funds” said Johnsen.
But the co-founders saw at least one win this legislative session. They expressed support of SB1255, which Gov. Brad Little signed into law earlier this year. The bill allocated $50 million toward “Empowering Parents” grants, which are available to help families of both public and private school children pay for resources outside the classroom.
Push Back Idaho also endorsed candidates for the May 17 primaries.
“Our endorsements are for candidates who strongly support our flavor of school choice,” said Johnsen. “We support candidates who believe strongly in education, parental rights, freedom to choose, and who don’t want to be over-regulated by government.”
The organization endorsed Priscilla Giddings for lieutenant governor and Dorothy Moon for secretary of state — Republicans who courted the party’s hardliners during the election and lost.
But Push Back Idaho also endorsed GOP superintendent primary winner Debbie Critchfield over school-choice advocate, Branden Durst. While both candidates support school choice, parental rights and the fight against CRT, Durst’s platform may have more closely aligned with Push Back Idaho’s platforms. Johnsen and Miller said Critchfield was endorsed because of her experience and drive to make changes toward school choice.
Looking to the future
In the upcoming session and school year, Push Back Idaho hopes to continue influencing education policy in Blaine County and at the Statehouse. The founders also hope to receive more support from the community through membership and donations.
“We are pleased that baby steps were taken,” said Johnsen. “But the push for school choice is a ground swell. It’s not yet over.”