Ybarra sharply rebukes ‘political posturing’ around social-emotional learning


Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra listens to Gov. Brad Little during a March 18 news conference. Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra pushed back hard against political outcry surrounding “social-emotional learning” Thursday morning, declaring that “education is under attack” by “those who have co-opted the term.”

Her comments, delivered during an address at a virtual symposium on school safety, came as Ybarra’s office distances itself from the term social-emotional learning. SEL has been drawn into a divisive debate about alleged school indoctrination, as EdNews recently reported. Her comments also came the day after the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a libertarian group, accused Ybarra’s State Department of Education of plotting to hide “racist” SEL teachings from parents.

But Ybarra’s office has continued to advocate for the concept behind SEL, despite an internal rhetorical shift and external backlash.

She began her address with “an exercise” to advocate student social and emotional supports.

She asked participants to raise their hands if:

  • They were proud that Idaho ranks fifth in the nation for suicides.
  • They’d like to see more students die by suicide.
  • They’d like more students to disengage from school, “get hooked on drugs” or otherwise hurt themselves.
  • They’d like to see more incidents like the shooting at Rigby Middle School in May.
  • They’d heard details about the latest student’s death from suicide Wednesday night.

“Nobody wants any of those things that I just mentioned. But unfortunately, education is under attack right now. Some folks are characterizing the work that we’re doing to stop the things I was mentioning just a few moments ago, characterizing it as critical race theory. And nothing could be farther from the truth. Because depression, alcohol, suicide — those things know no boundaries, and no demographic when it comes to affecting our kids.”

The Freedom Foundation and members of Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s education task force have grouped SEL in with critical race theory, a comparison Ybarra rejected several times Thursday.

A few school board candidates have made opposition to SEL central to their campaigns ahead of the November election, further adding political charge to the term. They’ve looked to mobilize voters by calling SEL racially-tinged “indoctrination,” while Ybarra counters that SEL is “about self-control, self-awareness, problem solving, strong interpersonal skills and responsible decision making.”

The Republican superintendent didn’t call out the Freedom Foundation by name, but said “another force” is trying to portray mental health supports as “sinister.”

“Those who have co-opted the term social-emotional learning seem less concerned about our students’ well-being and more about political posturing and attempts to convince Idahoans that indoctrination is rampant in Idaho schools,” she said. “I speak for myself along (with) the department and many other Idaho parents and stakeholders who will not tolerate being shamed or scared off of a program that prevents kids from dying.”

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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