Unabridged, and official: Senate OKs science standards

After three years of rancor and rewrites, Idaho has a new set of science standards — with references to climate change on the books.

The Senate Education Committee approved the science standards in full Thursday afternoon, overruling the House Education Committee’s attempt to edit out content referring to climate change — and a standard referencing various human impacts on the environment.

Under the Legislature’s arcane process of rules review, Senate Education wound up with the final word Thursday. By adopting the standards in full, the Senate action nullifies the House’s action. And it brings to an end a three-year debate that drew national media attention — and a process that drew teachers, students and scientists to the Statehouse to testify on the topic. (Read below for a full timeline of the debate.)

Senate Education adopted the standards on a 6-3 vote. Supporting the standards in full were Sens. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene; Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise; and Chuck Winder, R-Boise. Committee members overrode leadership; Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Vice Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, voted against the motion, joined by Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian.

All academic standards are critical because they provide a minimum baseline for educators across Idaho. Schools and teachers are free to go beyond the standards. But in many classrooms — especially in smaller and rural schools — the minimum standards set the parameters for instruction.

The Legislature has the authority to approve all academic standards, and this is typically a cursory review. But the science standards drew unusual scrutiny, and fierce opposition from some legislators who suggested the standards presented a biased view of the climate change issue. On the other side of the debate stood educators, scientists business leaders and some students — all arguing for robust standards that would expose students to a critical environmental topic.

Thursday’s committee debate centered less on the standards themselves, but on supporting content incorporated into those standards. House Education voted to remove about a dozen pages of supporting content referring to climate change and numerous other scientific principles, terms and theories.

Some committee members, including Mortimer, argued that the supporting content did not need to be part of the standards. But Ward-Engelking, a retired teacher, said the supporting content is critical, since it helps teachers prepare students for standardized science exams. “I know how important the standards and the content are to beginning teachers.”

The supporting content serves an even more important role, especially in conservative corners of the state. Without clear state guidelines, teachers could put their jobs on the line by discussing topics such as climate change, said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League, which lobbied for full adoption of the standards. “It gives them the cover to teach science as science,” Oppenheimer said after the vote.

As the committee weighed its options, Crabtree reminded colleagues about the work that went into the standards — an arduous review by some of the state’s most prominent science teachers, and a proposal that drew overwhelming public support. “I believe in the process,” he said.

The conclusion of this three-year process was a victory for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra. She did not attend Thursday’s hearing —she was home sick, spokeswoman Allison Westfall said — but in a news release, Ybarra praised senators for replacing “woefully outdated standards from 2001.”

It was also a victory for the science instructors who wrote and rewrote the standards. Chris Taylor, the Boise School District’s science and social studies coordinator, sat on this 19-member committee. And after Thursday’s vote, a relieved Taylor talked about what happens next: working on teacher training, aligned to the new standards.

“I’m excited to now start helping teachers implement these standards,” he said.

Science standards: Mileposts and quotes

A quick summary of the Idaho science standards debate:

Feb. 2, 2016: The House Education Committee rejects a new set of science standards. Some lawmakers criticize the process, saying the state should have done more to gather public comment. At least one legislator criticizes the content — specifically, language that says human activity has “significantly” altered the biosphere. “I think you could write standards without using some of that terminology and still have appropriate science standards,” says Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls.

Feb. 11, 2016: After Senate Education follows the House’s lead, killing the new standards, two members of the state’s science standards committee defend the process and the product. “If you listen to the talk, the talk is always about getting more kids in the STEM pipeline and needing to get kids to go to college,” says Jason George, head of the science department at Vision Charter School in Caldwell. “We have all these lofty goals, but we don’t have standards with enough rigor that would actually prepare kids for those things.” 

Dec. 15, 2016: The State Board of Education proposes a short-term fix — temporary standards for 2017 — and Gov. Butch Otter signs on.

Feb. 9, 2017: House Education takes a red pen to the temporary standards, deleting five sections referring to climate change. “What I’m looking for is to have the public say, ‘Yeah, maybe we can see there was a one-sided presentation on the negative side and, hey, let’s talk about this and both sides of the issue,’” says Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell. 

Feb. 27, 2017: Senate Education upholds the House’s decision, putting the edited standards into effect for one year. “I think you have to take the best of the situation before you,” says Guthrie.

April 18, 2017: Nearly 100 people cram into a Boise hotel conference room to speak out on science standards. Ultimately, the State Department of Education receives about 1,000 comments — all but five in support of standards that reference climate change.

May 19, 2017: The SDE releases a new set of proposed standards, saying the wording was designed to present “a balanced focus on solutions and problems.” The SDE had reconvened a 19-member committee of educators to take another run at the issue. “We did look at legislators’ comments and took out words we knew were hot buttons,” says Taylor. 

Feb. 1 and 2: Over two days, House Education takes testimony from 28 speakers, all supporting the standards in full. Chairwoman Julie VanOrden reprimands several speakers who mentioned climate change, and gavels down one geologist for the same reason. State superintendent Sherri Ybarra urges lawmakers to adopt the standards as proposed. “If these do not pass today, we are going backwards.” 

Feb. 7: House Education votes to delete one science standard, referring to air pollution and fossil fuels, and the supporting content. “When we have conclusions over standards, it stifles inquiry, and I don’t think that is the intent of the (SDE) to stifle inquiry,” Syme says. 

Feb. 14: Senate Education hears from 14 speakers — all supporting the standards in full. “How are we to address and solve problems if we don’t know what they are or what caused them?” said Veronica Richmond, a 12-year-old student at the Treasure Valley Math and Science Center.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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