Legislature primed for more ‘hot topic’ school standards debates in 2022


House Education Committee chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, presides over a March committee hearing.

A years-long debate over Idaho’s academic content standards is nearly guaranteed to resurface when lawmakers gather for the 2022 session next week.

Discontented that rewritten math, science and English language arts standards two years in the making haven’t cleared administrative hurdles, the House and Senate education committee chairmen are promising legislation to force the issue. But some education stakeholders and decisionmakers continue to disagree that state standards — which describe skills students should develop at each grade level  — need changing.

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, chairs the House Education Committee, where an outsized share of legislative standards debates have unfolded. There, lawmakers have debated how, or whether, students should learn about topics ranging from climate change to sex education, and they’ve frequently railed against national Common Core standards.

Though the Legislature has no direct control over what’s in state standards, lawmakers have leaned on rule makers to shape what children learn by revising the set of expectations for K-12 schools. Clow hopes to get the discussion rolling soon after the session begins Monday to give stakeholders time to weigh in on the perennially contentious issue.

“Standards are always a hot topic,” Clow told EdNews by phone this week. “We’ve spent a lot of energy talking about this stuff.”

That’s true. Clow and Senate Education chair Steven Thayn have twice written Gov. Brad Little, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra and the State Board of Education, urging them to rewrite standards. Cosigned by their Republican colleagues on the education committees, the 2020 and 2021 letters have sought to guide standard writing from the Legislature’s limited position; lawmakers can only reject, accept or partially accept standards, but can’t directly edit or amend them.

Republican legislators’ indirect pressure has yielded results, just not as many as they’d like. Over the last two summers, volunteer committees of teachers, community members and lawmakers of both major parties have reworked the math, science and English standards under the State Department of Education’s direction. However, the newly drafted standards haven’t gained approval needed to go on to the Legislature. Some education officials and lawmakers blame inaction in Little’s office, or at the State Board.

But pushing to approve the revised standards, if possible, is “still the game plan” for this session, said Thayn, R-Emmett.

Incoming legislation

It’s unclear whether or how standards will change this session, but Clow is pushing to ensure they do.

He plans to bring back two pieces of legislation that he introduced in November: one to nullify existing English, math and science standards, and another forcing the State Board to adopt the rewritten standards. Thayn said he supports both.

On introducing the legislation, Clow said, “The whole point was to point out that, personally, I’m not happy. There’s a lot of people not happy, but I’m not happy that these rules didn’t move forward.”

The standards haven’t been adopted because they lack a detailed fiscal note explaining the costs of adopting new standards, State Board spokesperson Mike Keckler told EdNews by email. But he deferred to the Division of Financial Management to answer more specific questions, and the DFM didn’t answer emailed questions from EdNews.

So, it’s still unclear where some officials and groups stand.

Little hasn’t publicly said whether he backs the rewritten standards. In an email Friday, spokesperson Marissa Morrison Hyer said, “Governor Little looks forward to working with legislators, education stakeholders, and the Board of Education on any necessary changes to standards and any requisite appropriation.”  Hyer is yet to answer EdNews’ questions about whether Little opposes the rewrite, or spending tax dollars to implement the newly proposed standards.

A common enemy

Much of Republicans’ push to rework the standards stems from a larger backlash against Common Core, and their perceived and real connections to Idaho’s standards.

Though Idaho has its own standards, Clow traces some of their pieces to Common Core. His initial letter to the executive branch was an attempt “to break the close connection and nexus with Common Core,” he said.

Thayn said the same is true for him, and fellow Republicans; he said he remains concerned with Common Core. “I don’t think anyone wants to be on the side of keeping Common Core in an election year.”

Republican lawmakers list a wide range of grievances with standards — and some that have nothing to do with the Idaho Core Standards, which address only math and English language arts. Some have said the standards should be friendlier to industries such as mining and should promote American culture and exceptionalism, the Idaho Capital Sun reported. Others have said science standards should emphasize advantages of fossil fuel-based power in classroom discussions of climate change. Some have taken issue with assigned literature — which falls under curriculum, which is controlled by school districts, not the state.

‘Consistency and stability’

Competing grievances split would-be reformers on how to make revisions. But people are also divided on whether change is needed at all.

Garden City Democratic Rep. John McCrostie, like Thayn, was on one of the review committees that helped rewrite the standards. After two summers of work, the high school music teacher said he is “still OK with the original standards that we’ve had.”

McCrostie is waiting to hear from education professionals during the session before making hard judgements about the rewritten standards, though, and he said the updates appear to have made state standards more concise.

But the Democrat’s hesitation to make changes is neither new nor unique.

“I’m tired of this debate over standards,” Idaho Business for Education President Rod Gramer told EdNews on a podcast released Friday. “Let’s just get the standards done. … Let’s let the teachers do their job, and get away from this craziness, insanity around standards. And let English be taught. Let math be taught. Let science be taught.”

“It’s absolutely mission critical to have the practitioners at the table when you’re discussing standards,” Matt Compton of the Idaho Education Association said on the same podcast. Compton didn’t comment specifically on the newly drafted standards.

To some degree, the standards discussion has to continue. State standards are supposed to be reviewed and renewed by the executive branch and Legislature every five years on a rotating cycle. That’s because they’re technically omnibus rules, which are temporary rules that the executive branch reups over and over, even if it doesn’t make any changes.

It may be a long shot, but Clow hopes to change that system, and eventually, put the standards discussion to bed.

“We need to give some consistency and stability to our content standards — all of them — so the schools don’t have to worry about what’s coming and going,” Clow said.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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