Statehouse roundup, 2.16.24: Bill taking on pronoun use in schools advances

House lawmakers Friday advanced a bill that would restrict the use of transgender students’ pronouns and grant legal protection to teachers who refuse to use students’ preferred pronouns. 

Idaho teachers are facing pressure to recognize preferred pronouns “with fear of reprisal,” said bill sponsor Rep. Ted Hill. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined having a teenager dictate my speech,” Hill, R-Eagle, told the House State Affairs Committee. 

House Bill 538 would: 

  • Bar K-12 public school teachers from using a pronoun or name for an underage student that doesn’t align with their birth sex. (A parent or guardian could consent to referring to their child by a preferred pronoun or name.)
  • Protect public employees, including school and college staff, from discipline if they refuse to use a pronoun that doesn’t align with an individual’s birth sex.
  • Subject public employers, including school districts, colleges and universities, to civil liability and potential uncapped damages if they compel an employee to use a pronoun that doesn’t align with an individual’s birth sex.

The bill would impact students and public employees who are transgender but also others who don’t identify with a traditional male-female binary. Liliana Rauer, a transgender student from Boise, called it a “hateful bill” motivated by a “startling lack of compassion.” 

“It is a denial of basic human respect,” she said. 

Gretchen Rauer, Lilyana’s mother, also testified, noting that the Legislature in recent years has denied her daughter the right “to participate in sports, to use the bathroom that she feels most aligns with her identity, to access gender-affirming health care.”

“Now, you’re trying to take her name,” Gretchen Rauer said.

Rep. Ted Hill, R-Eagle

Hill argued that compelling a teacher to use someone’s preferred pronoun is a slight on the First Amendment. “I’ll recognize whatever pronoun you have, just don’t force me to,” he said during an introductory hearing last week. 

During the previous meeting, Hill said he planned to bring 20 teachers that would support the bill to Friday’s hearing. Two teachers, Heidi Hill, a Boise School District teacher and Ted Hill’s wife, and Steve Bender, a substitute teacher in the West Ada School district, lauded the bill Friday. 

Students asking to go by names and pronouns that don’t align with their sex is a “fad,” Bender said. “I’ve had dozens of interactions with students who want to play this game, sometimes with parental support, but mostly without.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho also testified against the bill, arguing that it undermines parental authority. While the bill allows parents to permit a teacher to use their child’s preferred name or pronouns, school employees could “simply ignore or refuse to implement parents instructions on how to address their children,” said Amy Dundon, legislative strategist for the ACLU of Idaho.

HB 538 now heads to the House floor.

House passes anti-mask mandate bill

A bill banning school districts from imposing mask mandates is headed to the Senate.

The House approved House Bill 493, which prohibits mask mandates designed to “prevent or slow the spread of a contagious or infectious disease.” The ban extends to all state and local governments, including school districts.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Jacyn Gallagher, R-Weiser, described the decision to wear a mask as “a personal freedom, a health freedom. …”

“This is really a people’s bill.”

The bill overcame bipartisan opposition. Rep. Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls, a former mayor and City Council member, said he would not support a bill that would usurp local authority. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said the bill allowed no room to consider future changes in mask technology — or diseases that could be even more contagious or lethal than COVID-19.

“Writing a law in reaction to the past … is not only very dangerous, but it’s irresponsible.”

The bill passed, 46-24, with 13 Republicans joining the House’s 11 Democrats in opposition.

Line items would fund CTE, rural incentives and other items

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee worked through some smaller education-related budgets.

  • A career-technical education budget that includes nearly $2.3 million in line items. This menu includes funding for instructor training and an upgrade of the CTE data system and $150,000 for additional fire service training — mirroring a pair of requests from Gov. Brad Little.
  • A State Board of Education “special programs” budget includes Little’s $749,600 request to fund the third year of a rural teacher incentive plan. This program provides up to $1,500 to teachers who work in rural or high-need districts and charter schools. Teachers can use the grants to pay off existing student loans or continue their education.
  • A separate State Board health education budget, including $574,100 in line items.
  • An Idaho Commission of Libraries budget, including a $750,000 federal “Digital Access for All Idahoans” grant. This grant sparked some brief debate. Rep. Clay Handy, R-Burley, said the grant would be a good step to help more young people read digital books; Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, called the grant “a woke program that’s come from a woke administration.” The committee approved the budget — including the federal grant — on a 17-3 vote, over objections from Tanner and other hardline conservatives.

Friday’s bills augment the controversial “maintenance” budgets now working their way through the Legislature. These followup bills also must pass the House and Senate.

Charter school overhaul heads to governor

A bill to overhaul charter school regulations cleared its final hurdle Friday, when the Senate overwhelmingly approved it after no debate.

The House- and Senate-approved bill heads to Gov. Brad Little’s desk, and he’s expected to sign it.

To read more about the bill, click here.

Catching up on the week’s education items

It’s been another busy week of education news at the Statehouse. Here are a few thumbnails.

Outcomes-based K-12 funding

On Tuesday, the House Education committee gave the initial go-ahead to State Superintendent Debbie Critchfeld’s proposal to tie $40 million of K-12 funding to student achievement. 

The outcomes-based funding formula would hinge on two metrics: 

  • Three-fifths of the funding would be tied to fifth through eighth grade math proficiency, measured by statewide assessments. That would be distributed similarly to literacy funding that the Legislature approved in 2022, said Rep. James Petzke, who is co-sponosring the bill with Critchfeld and the State Board of Education. 
  • The remaining 40% of the funds would be tied to college and career readiness credentials in ninth through 12th grade. College and career readiness would be measured by the rate of high schoolers who have postsecondary credits, like advanced placement and career technical education classes. 

That will incentivize “school districts to help students achieve beyond just what they need to do,” Petzke, R-Meridian, told the House Education Committee. 

The committee unanimously voted to introduce the bill, which could return for a public hearing. 

Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, asked what percentage of the total K-12 school budget would be tied to the outcomes-based funding. Petzke responded that it’s just $40 million of a roughly $3 billion pie, but the bill would step-up the funding to $52 million in the coming years. 

“Obviously, the body could decide to put more or less money in, but that’s what’s envisioned,” he said.

Age limit on teaching sex, sexual orientation, gender identity

On Monday, the House Education Committee introduced a bill that would ban teaching about sex education, sexual orientation and gender identity before fifth grade. 

Co-sponsor Rep. Julianne Young said the bill does “not necessarily” address “a problem at the moment,” but “children are being sexualized at increasingly younger ages.”

“The best time to set that line in the sand is right now, when we can see it coming, before it is a problem,” said Young, R-Blackfoot. 

The proposal originally was identical to a bill that the Senate passed last year. But the committee amended the current bill before voting to introduce it. 

Rep. Mark Sauter, R-Sandpoint, recommended adding the word “planned” before “instruction” to clarify that the language would only prohibit a formal class. Reps. Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome, and Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise, said they worried it would stop school nurses and teachers from talking to a student about menstruation if she starts her period before fifth grade. 

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, recommended striking a line that said the proposed code wouldn’t “grant authority or require the teaching of these subjects” after fifth grade. Idaho currently doesn’t mandate that school districts teach sex education, and parents can opt out their children if it is taught. The provision was “fundamentally contradictory” to current statute on sex education, Berch said 

The committee voted, 8-7, to concur with the proposed amendments. The bill could return to the committee for a public hearing. 

Minimum paid leave for teachers in National Guard 

A new bill would set a minimum 10-day paid leave standard for public school teachers who serve in the National Guard. 

Required training for the Guard has increased in recent decades, and there’s a “huge discrepancy” in how many paid days individual school districts provide, said Rep. Matt Bundy. Setting a “baseline” could encourage Guard members to continue teaching, as both the military and schools face recruitment and retention issues, he said. 

“They provide a wonderful role model for students,” said Bundy, R-Mountain Home. 

The House Education Committee unanimously voted to introduce the bill Thursday. Rep. Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls, a former Guard member said he will “wholeheartedly” support the bill when it returns for a public hearing. 

Clarifications on when teachers can ‘physically escort’ students

On Thursday, the House Education Committee introduced a bill clarifying when school staff can touch a student to maintain control in the classroom. 

Last year, the Legislature passed a prohibition on restraining or isolating students as a form of discipline. That was after the Idaho Statesman reported such practices were leading to injuries and trauma

In the first year, some school officials took the new limits to an “extreme,” said Rep. Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls. The new bill clarifies teachers can still physically remove a student from a classroom in certain cases. 

A teacher can physically escort a student if their behavior is “severely disrupting the learning of other students” or if it’s “identified as an appropriate intervention” in the student’s education program, the bill says. 

Restraint or seclusion must cease when the student is no longer placing themselves or others in danger or when they’re in the custody of their parent or guardian. 

Roach confirmation heads to Senate

With little discussion, the Senate Education Committee endorsed State Board of Education member Cally Roach.

Her confirmation — for a five-year term beginning on July 1 — now heads to the full Senate for a vote.

Roach, of Fairfield, has served on the board since 2021.


Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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