Legislative roundup, 4.29.21: Little signs nondiscrimination bill, but questions ‘anecdotes and innuendo’ that birthed it

Gov. Brad Little Wednesday signed into law the controversial House Bill 377, dealing with school nondiscrimination and targeting critical race theory.

The new law bans school spending that in some way forces students to “adopt” or “adhere to” the belief that an individual is responsible for actions committed by members of their race or identity group in the past. It also bars schools from teaching that one identity group is superior, a teaching Republican lawmakers have attributed to critical race theory and liberal “indoctrination” they fear is occurring in Idaho public schools.

Little questioned the Legislature’s narrative of “widespread, systemic indoctrination in Idaho classrooms” that fueled the bill and said the legislative process has sent “the wrong message” to stakeholders.

“We must be focused on facts and data, not anecdotes and innuendo,” Little wrote in a letter transmitted to House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

The bill was introduced after House Republicans killed budgets funding Idaho colleges and universities and K-12 teacher salaries, over concerns that educators are teaching about social justice and critical race theory. Some legislators said they would not approve a teacher salary budget without “intent language” banning such teachings. Consequently, many moderate Republicans argued HB 377 could be the linchpin to moving education budgets forward, which have stalled the legislative session — now third longest in state history.

“The process that produced this legislation over the last few weeks sends the wrong message to Idaho teachers, parents, and students. It has been nothing short of a distraction from meeting our constitutional and moral obligations to public education in Idaho,” Little wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union joined Idaho students in testifying against the bill, warning it would have a chilling effect on classroom discussions about race’s role in U.S. history. The bill also drew opposition from several lobbying groups: Idaho Business for Education; the Idaho Education Association; and the Idaho School Boards Association.

As the Statehouse debate over schools and social justice has intensified this month, the State Board of Education has remained neutral on the bill, though they’ve noted, like Little, that school districts and colleges already have processes in place to field curriculum complaints.

In Idaho, all curriculum decisions are made locally, Little pointed out in his letter. But some lawmakers have called the bill a “proactive” measure resisting proposed federal rules that they say would force schools to insert critical race theory into their teachings. However, the rules and orders they’ve cited so far have not made any mention of the intellectual movement, which approaches race’s social construction and role in American history and institutions.

Idaho Education News has so far been unable to verify the validity of lawmakers’ evidence of forced indoctrination in public schools.

“The claim that there is widespread, systemic indoctrination occurring in Idaho classrooms is a serious allegation. Most worryingly, it undermines popular support for public education in Idaho,” Little wrote.

Some education budgets move forward, headliners still in limbo

After Little’s letter was read to the House Thursday, the chamber quickly passed four of the remaining K-12 budget bills, with little opposition.

The House has now approved six of the seven budget bills that together account for the state’s K-12 spending. But some of the most bitterly contested education budgets — for higher education, for early childhood learning grants and for K-12 teacher salaries — are yet to get a second vote from the chamber after social justice fears killed them.

“I’d appreciate your … supporting our children in Idaho schools,” said Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, before the House unanimously passed one of the bills.

The House adjourned until Monday on Thursday afternoon after OK’ing funds for:

The State Department of Education and State Board budgets attracted little debate but some resistance when it came to a vote. Both passed overwhelmingly after a handful of Republicans rejected each. Others were approved unanimously, with former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger notably absent after he resigned Thursday, facing a House ethics committee’s recommendation that he be expelled from the Legislature amidst allegations he raped a 19-year-old staffer.

The flurry of budgets passed today remained untouched on the House’s agenda for weeks, as representatives hashed out the social justice debate. But Thursday’s action could signal a break in the legislative stalemate.

If the newly increased teacher salary bill goes through, Idaho will be set to spend 3.8 percent more on its K-12 system than it did last year, summiting $2 billion in spending for the first time in state history. That’s on top of around $440 million in one-time funds headed for elementary and secondary schools from the American Rescue Plan Act, the latest round in federal COVID relief money.

With much of the money from the first two rounds of federal relief still unspent, K-12 schools are eyeing down over $800 million in added funding next school year, pending approval.

Predecessor social justice bill likely dead

House Bill 364, the “Protecting Critical Thinking in Higher Education Act,” is likely dead for the session.

The bill, introduced before HB 377, was another in a string of bills targeting progressive-slanted education that came out of the failed education budget votes. Now that HB 377 is passed, the earlier proposal is unlikely to get a hearing in the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, told EdNews by email Wednesday. Crabtree is the committee’s vice chairman.

The bill would have required public colleges and universities to post an annual report on their websites outlining their compliance with new free speech codes. Students could have sued their colleges and university staff over alleged violations for a minimum of $5,000.

It passed the House 56-12 earlier this month on nearly a party-line vote.

Idaho Education News covered Thursday’s hearings remotely.

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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