Comments to McGeachin’s indoctrination task force published by national group

Local students wore shirts reading “hands off our schools” during the education indoctrination task force meeting on Thursday, June 24, 2021. Before it met, initial commenters flooded the task force with critical comments, according to an EdNews analysis. Nik Streng/Idaho Education News

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) paid hundreds of dollars to obtain public comments submitted to Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin concerning her education indoctrination task force, then published the comments online last week. 

In a post on the organization’s website, FIRE characterized the task force’s attempts at rooting out alleged leftist teachings as “ham-fisted, politicized efforts.” The post also links to almost a thousand pages of documents that FIRE said it received from the lieutenant governor’s office via a public records request —  a set of public comments submitted to the lieutenant governor’s website via a Google Form between April 21 and May 3. Most names and personal information are redacted. 

McGeachin, who is running for governor in 2022, initially requested the comments as she formed her task force in a self-described bid to “protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism” amid a statewide debate over critical race theory and alleged leftist teachings. Her task force is co-chaired by state Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who is running to replace McGeachin as lieutenant governor and was recommended for censure last week by the House Ethics Committee. The task force, comprised of likeminded members McGeachin handpicked, is yet to accept live public testimony. Testimony will be taken for the first time at the task force’s final meeting in August, when policy recommendations will be made, McGeachin has said, though the group has no policymaking authority on its own.

The recently published comments are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed by statewide press cooperative the Idaho Press Club, which takes issue with McGeachin’s office refusing to release those and related comments, free of charge and free of redactions, to reporters from the Idaho Capital Sun, Idaho Statesman and EdNews. After seeing in the lawsuit that McGeachin’s office offered reporters copies of the records for $560 each, FIRE decided to cover the cost and make its own request, FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh told EdNews by phone Friday. 

Since the identities of those commenting weren’t important to FIRE, it requested and received the records without personal information included, after first requesting a larger, unredacted batch and meeting “frivolous” legal objections from McGeachin’s office, Steinbaugh said. 

FIRE has criticized state efforts to foreclose on the teaching of critical race theory in schools, like McGeachin’s “Task Force to Examine Indoctrination in Idaho Education,” and has scrutinized McGeachin’s office for its handling of public records requests. The organization’s “mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities” with focuses including freedom of speech, according to the organization’s website. Steinbaugh said FIRE wanted to see comments about the task force so the organization could get in touch with concerned citizens.

“We wanted to be aware in advance of what may have been reported to the task force, so that we could reach out to people in advance of their higher education meeting in order to let them know that look: This is what our organization does. This is how we can help. If you need our help, please get in touch with us,” said Steinbaugh. 

The Idaho Capital Sun, after six weeks of back-and-forth with McGeachin’s office, received copies of the records, but all comments and information identifying submitters were redacted, the outlet reported; that meant only submitters’ stakeholder group (parent, student, ect.), the level of education their comment applied to and the time of their submission was provided, showing no trace of what commenters actually said. FIRE’s publication of the comments likely marks the first time any of them have been made public. But comments since May 3 — and any information that could be used to verify the identities of commenters — still have not been released.

Though the cost of the initial comments has now been paid, months after initial requests, the inability to verify the identities of commenters remains an issue for the Idaho Press Club in its suit, said Scott McIntosh, chair of the organization’s First Amendment Committee. The Idaho Public Records Act doesn’t exempt disclosure of personal information from public records, the Idaho Press Club contends. 

Consequently, EdNews could not verify whether the 900-plus pages of published comments were made by Idahoans or how many commenters made multiple submissions. EdNews is also working to confirm that the comments FIRE received in fact came from McGeachin’s office, but, as of Wednesday afternoon, EdNews had not received a copy of the same records, requested from the Lt. Governor’s office on Monday.

What commenters said

EdNews read and analyzed all the comments released and found the majority that took a position were anti-task force.

Swaths of submissions called McGeachin names, compared her to Joseph McCarthy and said she was hurting Idaho’s schools and starting a “witch hunt” against educators. Some spewed much more vitriolic rhetoric at the Lieutenant Governor, cursing at her and promising to vote her out of office.  

Reported liberals and conservatives alike chided the Lt. Governor’s focus on what many called a non-issue. 

“Please stop feeding misinformation to your supporters and actually do something to help our kids. Like increased funding for schools,” one commenter wrote. It was a common theme. 

Still, in the hundreds of pages of documents — many with multiple comments per page — a fair number of submissions touched on concerns of indoctrination or censorship by both sides of the political aisle. 

One purported parent said he was concerned about his son’s AP Government course, where the teacher appeared to be against former president Donald Trump and “celebrated when he was impeached.” A self-described K-12 student said their history teacher pushed conservative ideologies and encouraged students to favor Republican politicians over Democrats. 

One former college student said they were booed by feminists after speaking up during class and felt “openly intimidated.” Another said they were called a “commie” for disagreeing with their professor in class. 

Several current and former teachers and administrators said they’ve never seen any evidence of indoctrination in decades of teaching — though, a handful pointed fingers at their colleagues for teaching materials they consider too liberal, or for voicing their political opinions. 

For every accusation that teaching critical race theory — an academic lens for evaluating racism’s influence on U.S. history and institutions — divides students or aims to “dismantle America,” is another complaint that Idaho’s schools don’t go far enough to examine historical oppression of Native American communities, enslavement or Idaho’s role in hosting Japanese internment camps during World War II.   

“Too many children are being indoctrinated with American exceptionalism and whitewashed history,” one comment said.

Old debates about allegedly biased practices in American education resurfaced too, as a few commenters debated “indoctrination” surrounding the pledge of allegiance and teachings of creationism and evolution in public schools.

Others, possibly fueled by efforts to flood the Lieutenant Governor with anti-task force messages, were laced with satire.

One commenter said they were “Captain Crunch” and asked, “Why don’t we teach our populace more about cereal?!”

The negative comments look noticeably different from McGeachin’s email inbox, where she’d received majority support for her task force in emails containing the terms “critical race theory” or “indoctrination” from January to July 15, EdNews reported. Notably, only 100 such emails were provided via a public records request, a total far outnumbered by the 3,600 some responses contained in the public records release.

You can find the full set of comments here. Be aware that some of the language is vulgar and might not be suitable for all audiences. 

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