Lawmaker Barbara Ehardt emerged as a lightning rod in Idaho education circles in 2019.
In just her second year as a state representative, the Idaho Falls Republican took head on two of the state’s most contentious issues: sex education and student diversity.
Her July 9 letter urging a new university president to reject existing diversity and inclusion initiatives dominated headlines, spurred lingering debate and attracted praise and criticism from fellow lawmakers, largely along party lines.
Her bill to create a more restrictive sex education policy for public education blazed a similar trail.
And she’s not finished.
Ehardt, 55, recently doubled down on her views about both hot-button topics, discussed her lifelong love for politics and detailed a plan to reintroduce her sex ed bill in 2020, all during an exclusive interview with Idaho Education News.
To use a phrase from her days coaching college basketball: The game isn’t over.
“She’s not afraid to attack controversial issues,” said Rep. Bryan Zollinger, a fellow Republican and Ehardt’s House seat mate.
Democratic House Rep. Ilana Rubel, a staunch opponent to Ehardt on diversity and sex ed, recognized Ehardt’s approach as sincere.
“I think she believes in what she’s doing,” said Rubel, D-Boise.
Ehardt’s first legislative session was low key. She authored no bills as a freshman and House Education Committee member in 2018.
“I listened,” she told EdNews.
It was the 2019 legislative session that launched her into the limelight. Her lifelong fascination with politics and a 15-year career coaching women’s Division I college basketball helped set the stage for her eventual assault on controversial issues.
Her interest in politics started in 1973, when, as a third grader, she watched the Watergate scandal unfold on TV.
She wanted to be involved, she had ideas and she wanted to help. In grade school she volunteered to deliver flyers for a family friend running for office. She ran for student council.
Even as a student, she had doors slammed in her face. Still, “I fell in love,” she recalled.
But a career in basketball would come first. After high school, Ehardt earned scholarships to play at North Idaho College and Idaho State University. She went on to coach women’s basketball at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Brigham Young University; Washington State University; and California State University, Fullerton, where she was head coach for three years.
A move back to Idaho Falls reunited her with politics. She secured a place as president of Bonneville County Republican Women and as a city councilwoman in 2013. In 2017, she lost a contentious mayoral run-off against Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper. A month later, then-Gov. Butch Otter handpicked Ehardt to replace Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Janet Trujillo, who was appointed to the Idaho State Tax Commission.
“I never thought I’d make it to the Legislature,” said Ehardt, who is referred to as “Coach E” on the House floor.
Ehardt, who’s never been married or had children, now balances politics with a job at a local fitness center and running Coach E’s Camps and Clinics, a traveling basketball program for high school boys.
She’s also a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and gives motivational speeches at Especially for Youth seminars, annual week-long events focused on instilling LDS principles in thousands of the church’s younger members.
Though her days on the college level are past, Ehardt sees parallels between coaching and legislating, from the quest for victory to the turnover.
“I like to joke that, with both jobs, you’re either being hired or being fired,” said Ehardt, whose booming voice during House debates often resembles that of a coach motivating her players.
Her transition to lawmaker also brought a learning curve. She spent much of the 2019 session requesting a flow chart illustrating how different education agencies work together and how other budgets work.
A battle over sex ed
Ehardt returned to the 2019 Legislature ready to tackle her first signature issue: sex education.
Her decision stemmed from “a lot of concerns” over the issue voiced during the 2018 session.
Idaho law allows parents to opt their children out of sex ed instruction in public schools. Ehardt felt families should have more say in what their kids are exposed to. In February, she presented House Bill 120, requiring parents to sign off on letting their kids take sex ed classes in public schools. The bill would have flipped the process outlined in the current law by requiring parental permission for a student to participate.
Ehardt’s “opt-in” bill became one of most closely watched during the 2019 session, with House Democrats focused on its potential impacts.
“I was deeply concerned about the bill,” said Rubel, adding that an opt-in requirement would hinder sex ed enrollment and potentially drive up teen pregnancies and abortion rates.
That “makes no sense” in a GOP-dominated House “nearly obsessed” with abortion, Rubel added.
The sex ed bill went on to pass through the House on a party-line vote before dying in the Senate Education Committee.
Ehardt reflected on the failed bill and pushed back on claims that its opt-in requirement would have hindered sex ed enrollment. Controversy over the bill overshadowed its “real aim” to give parents more say in their kids’ sex ed instruction, Ehardt said.
A revised 2020 bill will reflect last year’s opt-in emphasis, Ehardt told EdNews, but it will also address definitions of “sexuality,” another thorny issue brought up during Statehouse debates last session.
Diversity and inclusion
Four months after introducing her sex ed bill, Ehardt reignited controversy with a three-page letter to new Boise State University President Marlene Tromp.
Co-signed by 27 other House Republicans, the letter lambasted the university’s range of diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives, including pow wows for American Indian students, separate graduations for LGBT and black students and graduate fellowships for minorities.
“We need to do things the Idaho way!” Ehardt wrote. “As legislators, we will seek and support academic excellence that does not pursue social or political agendas or incur additional costs.”
The letter placed Tromp in the middle of a political crossfire, after just 12 days on the job. It also sparked a student-led forum, with Ehardt, Zollinger and Boise Democrats Rep. Mat Erpelding and Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb as panelists.
Democrats argue that curbing diversity and inclusion efforts at Idaho’s largest university would counteract the state’s flagship goal to raise college go-on and completion rates.
“It’s not just about being nice and inclusive,” Rubel said. “It’s about addressing under-attainment rates among our minorities.”
Ehardt recently doubled down on her critique of the initiatives.
“Money still flows through the university to the programs,” she told EdNews, adding that diversity initiatives focused on certain racial and ethnic groups are unfair and ineffective.
She referenced her time coaching college basketball players from a range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I’ve worked at the university level,” she said. “You can’t unite by dividing.”
Since the letter’s publication, at least two House Republicans publicly suggested defunding Boise State. That was never the letter’s intent, Ehardt told EdNews. Instead, it was about raising awareness and spurring discussion.
“I think we’ve done that so far,” she said.
Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this story.