Legislative roundup, 4.19.21: New bill targets sectarianism, critical race theory

(UPDATED, 3:42 p.m. Monday, with details on the bill.) 

It took four minutes Monday afternoon for a House committee to introduce a bill that would crack down on the discussion of sectarianism in the classroom.

The bill is the latest salvo in the debate over social justice instruction — a bitter battle that has left Idaho’s education budgets in limbo, as the Legislature lurches into its 15th week of the session.

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot

The two-page House Bill 375 reads, in part:  “No moneys shall be expended by any school district, public charter school, or public institution of higher education for any education or program advocating sectarianism.”

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, described HB 375 as a political compromise — incorporating language from the House and the Senate, which still must approve a battery of education spending bills before adjourning the 2021 session. Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, is listed as a bill co-sponsor.

Young also said HB 375’s language comes in part from the state Constitution. In Monday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing, Young cited  Article IX, Section 6, of the state Constitution, which reads, in part, “No sectarian or religious tenets or doctrines shall ever be taught in the public schools, nor shall any distinction or classification of pupils be made on account of race or color.”

The brief Ways and Means discussion focused on the way the bill defines sectarianism — a trait, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, as “very strong support for the religious or political group that you are a member of.”

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, focused on one section of the bill: “No educational materials advocating sectarianism shall be used or introduced in any institution of higher education, any school district, or any public school, including a public charter school.” The House minority leader said she believes this language would prevent history teachers from even mentioning works that advance sectarianism — even to debunk the content.

“I don’t honestly know how professors or teachers could operate in a meaningful manner,” Rubel said.

House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, meanwhile, focused on the bill’s definition of sectarianism: “a form of prejudice, discrimination or hatred” arising from attaching superiority or inferiority to people’s differences. He believed the bill makes clear that instructors cannot use materials that would advance such prejudice.

“I think it’s fair language,” said Monks, R-Meridian.

Ways and Means, a committee comprised largely of House leadership, introduced Young’s bill on a party-line vote. The House Education Committee has scheduled a full hearing on the bill for Tuesday.

Over the past 12 days, the House has killed two major education budgets: a $315 million higher education budget, and a $1.1 billion teacher salary bill, as conservative lawmakers have pushed for language preventing colleges and universities and K-12 schools from advancing social justice causes, or teaching concepts such as critical race theory. Social justice dominated Tuesday’s House debate over the teacher salary bill, although lawmakers offered no specific examples of social justice or critical race theory instruction in K-12 schools.

The social justice debate has brought education budgeting to a standstill.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has not met to rewrite the higher education or teacher salaries budget bills, and did not meet at all Monday morning. JFAC isn’t scheduled to meet Tuesday, either.

The House worked its way through parts of its calendar Monday. However, the House didn’t take up four K-12 bills, separate from the failed teacher salaries budget bill, or a bill authorizing the State Board of Education to spend a federal early education grant, worth some $6 million a year for three years.

Repeat effort to nix August election moves forward

An elections bill, now amended to axe Idaho’s August elections, passed the House Monday.

Earlier this month, Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, pushed to amend Senate Bill 1061, which would change election deadlines, to also eliminate the August election date, which school districts use for bond and levy requests. The amendment revived Barbieri’s effort to eliminate the August election. In March, a Senate committee killed a standalone bill to that end.

Young emphasized the merits of election deadline changes embedded in the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously. Of the amendment, she said, “It is creating a uniform standard process for community college and school district elections, for city initiatives and referendums, and for recall elections, establishing that they will all have” a March, May and November election.

Currently, Idaho schools can run bond and levy elections in March, May, August and November.

Some House Democrats have maintained the August election date is an important opportunity for school districts to request needed funding after solidifying their school year budgets over the summer.

Gooding Democrat Sally Toone said the county clerks she’s talked to have been “wishy washy” on the bill, but that school districts she’s contacted staunchly oppose the change. She noted that the election is not just used for bond and levy votes, but for school board recalls, too.

“That should be a local issue,” Toone said. “It should be our job to give citizens every opportunity to be involved.”

Representatives’ last try at stopping the election came with the support of Secretary of State Lawerence Denney’s office but amid opposition from the Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Association of School Administrators and many school leaders.

The revised bill passed 46-21.

Levy language bill approved by House, again

The House passed an amended bill Wednesday that will change the look of school bond and levy ballot questions in Idaho.

House Bill 66aa would change requirements around the language used to introduce bond and levy initiatives — including those run by school districts — on the ballot. Included in those changes: districts would no longer be able to indicate on the ballot if a measure simply re-ups an existing levy.

The bill’s backers say changes will bolster transparency for voters, but critics warn voters will no longer have key context as they decide whether to approve school funding requests.

“These are important pieces of complicated decisions that the citizens of Idaho are being forced to make, and we are increasing the amount of informational asymmetry,” said Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise. “And we’re doing them a disservice.”

But Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said amendments made in the Senate, which were motioned by a Democrat and a Republican, refined the bill after the House first approved it earlier in the session. Of a group of technical changes, he said, “The amendment made it easier for districts to comply with bond disclosure.”

The amendments also included technical clarifications about the complicated bill’s changes, along with other revisions.

Before the bill was amended, Rep. Laurie Lickley, R-Jerome, said all seven school districts in her legislative district opposed the bill, EdNews reported. She voted against the new version Monday.

The House eventually concurred with Senate amendments, despite pushback, on a 48-20 vote.

Idaho Education News covered Monday’s hearings remotely.


Kevin Richert and Blake Jones

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