Students protest proposed restrictions on racism, sexism in Idaho school curricula

Fourty or so Idaho students marched through downtown Boise Friday night in protest of legislation that would restrict education on racism and sexism in public schools throughout the state. 

The students — predominantly from Treasure Valley high schools — took aim at RS28866, a proposal that would prohibit public schools from teaching “racist or sexist concepts.” By the proposal’s definition, those concepts include teaching that Idaho or the U.S. is fundamentally racist, that individuals are inherently oppressive by virtue of their race or sex or that someone should receive “favorable treatment” because of their race or sex. Public schools violating the curriculum constraints could face a 10% funding holdback from the State Board of Education along with legal action from the public. 

Students take the steps of the Idaho Capitol in protest of a proposal to restrict teaching of “racist and sexist concepts” in public schools.

The bill passed the House Education Committee March 19 after the committee’s three Democratic members walked out of a hearing in protest, the Post Register reported. The bill was introduced with the committee’s chairman out with COVID-19, and acting Chairwoman Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, did not allow questions to be asked of the proposal’s author, Ada County Republican official Ed Humphreys.  Neither Humphreys nor Boyle responded to requests for comment from Idaho EdNews. 

The implications of the proposal’s prohibition on teaching “racist and sexist concepts” are somewhat unclear. A ban on books that espouse, advocate or promote any racist or sexist concept housed in the proposal makes it unclear what readings would be struck from curriculum statewide.

Rallying students argued the proposal constitutes “censorship,” “whitewashing history” and an “anti-education” “racist and sexist bill” on protest signs and in chants throughout Friday evening. 

“The bill itself definitely seems to me to be disguised as something that wants to eliminate racism and sexism from our education system,” said Boise State University senior Ashley Clark. “But once you read into the bill, that is not actually what it’s doing. It’s eliminating the discussion of racism and sexism, which is very, very essential to our education.”

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, walked out of the education committee in opposition to the bill’s content, its power as a “political distraction” from “more pressing” education issues and the legislative process it underwent, he told Idaho EdNews by phone Friday. Berch said he understood activists’ plans to protest, but argued demonstrations feed into spotlighting the proposal. 

“That is exactly what the sponsors of this bill, that the political operatives who wrote this bill want. They want to create controversy so that you have people raising the visibility of this so that they can attack and use their talking points,” Berch said. “I don’t even want to imply that this bill has credibility by trying to argue its merits.”

Students march through downtown Boise chanting “What do we want? Education.”

An Idaho Education Association union organizer and a retired school counselor were among a handful of non-students in attendance. In the crowd, Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, spent the night gathering students’ information for future organizing, though she didn’t publicly speak and declined an interview.

Standing on the steps of the Statehouse, Renaissance High School sophomore David Ballard argued the proposal would fetter education on race and sex’s roles in American history. 

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” Ballard said. “You can’t engage in the civic process, which is everybody’s civic duty, without having an understanding of the history and background of why you’re participating.”

The proposal passed committee shortly before the Legislature went on a coronavirus-induced recess. Now approved for printing, the proposal could be on the docket as early as Tuesday when the legislative session resumes.


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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