Statehouse roundup, 1.31.22: Liebich defends schools against ‘vocal minority’s’ criticisms

State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich Monday defended Idaho public schools against unnamed critics targeting both student achievement numbers and “critical race theory” indoctrination.

And the Gov. Brad Little-appointee backed Little’s budget request for schools, touted the State Board’s pandemic response and fielded lawmakers’ questions in his address to the House Education Committee Monday. Yet many of his comments, whether offered proactively or in response to committee members’ questions, addressed resistance to public schooling.

In Liebich’s eyes, Idaho is “punching above its weight” in student achievement given its U.S.-low per-student spending.

“We have critics whose stated goal is to do away with our constitutionally stated mission of providing a uniform and thorough public education system. I don’t understand the vocal minority’s long-term goal or intent. But when they continuously promote the narrative that our education system is broken, and we need to defund it, they’re striking at the very foundation of the great economy that we have built here in Idaho,” Liebich said.

Liebich’s defense of public schools comes a week after presidents of Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities hedged against further retribution from lawmakers over perceived alleged indoctrination by their institutions.

The contentious topic resurfaced Monday, as Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, pushed Liebich on a preschool grant that House Republicans killed last year, saying the grant would be used to indoctrinate Idaho preschoolers.

“It was laden with critical race theory curriculum for kids from infancy to pre-K,” said Moon, contradicting what program leaders and administrators have said about the grant. “Will you do a more thorough investigation of any programs that you tried to bring into the state with these $6 million in federal grant funds?” she twice asked.

Said Liebich of the grant, “If there was a curricular aspect to it that included critical race theory concepts, that would be news to me, and I’d be concerned.”

Continuing his pushback against claims of systematic leftist indoctrination, Liebich said the State Board surveyed students at Idaho’s eight colleges and universities on the campus climate at their schools and found that “a supermajority of students across all institutions, class levels, political leanings, feel valued and have a sense of belonging at their respective institutions.”

The survey, with a 16.4% response rate, will now be given annually, and a graphic visualizing results will soon be posted online, Liebich said. It also found that, of students surveyed:

  • 89% feel valued.
  • 97% feel respected.
  • 95% feel a sense of belonging.
  • 68% never or rarely feel pressure to affirm or accept the least they find offensive.
  • 81% reported never or rarely feeling shamed or bullied for sharing their personal beliefs or viewpoints.
  • 91% feel safe to express their personal beliefs or viewpoints with others.

Liebich lauded the results, but said, “There is a significant minority of students that indicate they at least occasionally feel not valued, not respected or feel pressured to affirm beliefs or shamed or bullied. We have work to do in this area and the board will work with our presidents to continue to improve the culture and climate on our campuses.”

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, raised the issue of indoctrination too. She floated the idea of emulating a South Dakota approach that shed some “diversity and inclusion” programs, as she did in a committee meeting last week.

The terms “diversity and inclusion” have been conflated with critical race theory, Liebich said, and have been “poisoned” by a national debate over indoctrination; he said he goes back and forth on whether to better define the terms or shed them altogether.

‘Always missing mom’

At one point, focus shifted, at least indirectly, to one of Little’s budget asks: funding for full-day kindergarten.

Moon suggested moving back the start date for full-day kindergarten programs beyond Sept. 1, by which point most school districts have restarted classes. She said she agreed with a kindergarten teacher who emailed her, saying, full-day kindergarteners are “always struggling and missing mom.”

“These kids are still very young and are not quite ready for full-day education or play time or whatever you want to call it,” she said.

Liebich replied that “there’s gotta be flexibility at the local level” to deal with such issues. Little’s plan, if funded, would allow districts to choose whether to spend their share of $47 million on full-day kindergarten or other early reading programs.

Health insurance upgrade sails through Senate Education

After what amounted to a 40-minute legislative lovefest Monday afternoon, an unanimous Senate Education Committee passed a bill designed to upgrade school employees’ health insurance.

House Bill 443 would create a fund to help schools move to the state’s health insurance plan — covering the upfront costs to buy into the plan. It would also eliminate a $20 million-a-year teacher “leadership premium” program, putting the savings toward the cost of improved health insurance.

Education groups took turns praising HB 443.

Andy Grover of the Idaho Association of School Administrators said the bill would allow rural districts — such as Melba, where he had worked as superintendent — to upgrade coverage for employees and their families. “We’re going to go from catastrophe insurance to something way better.”

Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly put the issue in more personal terms. “For the first time in a long time, the educators I represent are hopeful,” he said. “They are looking to all of you for signs that they can afford to continue a career that they love.”

Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry said the bill would have a huge impact on classified employees, such as lunchroom staff and bus drivers, who essentially turn over their paycheck to cover insurance costs. The scenario hit home to Sen. Robert Blair, R-Leland, who said his wife had worked as a classified employee before getting a job as a special education teacher. “Bringing home a check at the end of the month for $4 isn’t very helpful,” he said.

HB 443 now heads to the Senate floor, where it could get a final vote later this week. It has already easily passed the House.

HB 443 represents one piece of Little’s three-part plan to upgrade school employees’ health insurance. Legislators also would have to pass two spending bills: A one-time, $75 million spending bill to bankroll upfront transition costs; and a $105 million bill to cover the ongoing increased costs.

Two scholarship proposals introduced

House Education gave initial support to two proposals to expand college scholarship eligibility for Idaho students.

House Bill 505 would allow students to receive up to a $2,000 match from the state if they receive a scholarship from business or industry. Currently, the program only allows students to receive the match if their scholarship was awarded based on merit. That’s stopped the bulk of applicants from receiving the scholarship, so $1.9 million of $2 million allocated to the program was left on the table last year, said State Board spokesman Mike Keckler.

House Bill 506 would edit a state armed forces scholarship, using an Idaho Division of Veterans Services definition of permanent and total disability to determine scholarship eligibility. That technical change would complement a proposal that Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, made last week to extend that scholarship’s eligibility to the survivors of three military pilots who died in a Black Hawk crash during a training exercise last year.

Both bills were introduced unanimously without debate, and could come back for full committee hearings.


Kevin Richert and Blake Jones

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