Idaho House passes social justice bill on party-line vote

Legislation could clear path for reconsideration of school budget bill

By: - April 22, 2021 3:45 pm
Idaho House floor

The House in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

On a party-line vote, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at addressing social justice topics in public schools.

House Bill 377 was introduced Wednesday by Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, and would prohibit certain principles from being taught in public schools or using public funds to promote such ideas. The House Education Committee heard the bill early Thursday morning. The committee then sent it to the House floor, where the body suspended its normal procedures to take the bill up immediately which isn’t uncommon toward the end of a legislative session. 

House Bill 377 prohibits educators from teaching that any sex, race or religion is inherently superior or inferior; that individuals by virtue of sex, race or religion are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by others; and that no distinction or classification of students be made on account of race or color.

The bill follows many concerns raised by conservatives throughout the session about “critical race theory” being taught in schools. 

Critical race theory is an academic idea tied to views that the United States’ law and legal institutions are inherently racist. Some Idaho teachers have publicly said it is not part of what they teach. 

The legislation also follows lawmakers voting down a budget bill that would have funded Idaho public school teacher salaries. Legislators opposed the funding bill because they wanted intent language included in the bill saying the funds wouldn’t be used for teaching critical race theory.

During the education committee hearing, representatives from the Idaho Education Association and the ACLU of Idaho spoke against the bill, along with several Idaho residents. Among the various criticisms of the bill were concerns that it was unnecessary legislation and the vague wording could create a chilling effect on speech in Idaho classrooms.

‘What this bill winds up doing … is intimidation’

Debbie Critchfield, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, told the committee she knows of no formal complaints or grievances with regard to critical race theory. Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, said he’s heard from superintendents and teachers who were unaware of what critical race theory was and said they were not teaching it in classrooms. He echoed the same thoughts during debate on the House floor.

“So, I think probably this bill is a conversation starter for one thing in the K-12 (schools),” Kerby said. “The … people in the K-12 system that are in any way, shape or form going to be involved in the curriculum need to get up to speed and have thoughtful discussions on how they are going to handle this.”

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said those who were involved with the drafting of the bill were careful not to include any penalties for violations. But Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said the bill’s wording creates a penalty worse than a fine or other punishment.

“It has been said that there is no penalty, but in fact, the most onerous of penalties is in this bill on page 2, line 15. No money shall be expended if anything that is prohibited in this bill happens. That’s defunding education, folks,” Berch said. “… When you don’t have definitions, and what you (do) have is an endless series of anecdotes, hearsay, conjecture, innuendo, emails, social media, robocalls, guilt by association, arguments that we have heard on and on – not just today but throughout this session – what this bill winds up doing in practical terms is intimidation.”

Concerns about legal conflicts of the bill were raised on the House floor, including by Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, who said the law could clash with federal affirmative action guidelines and academic freedom laws coinciding with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Nash added that some of his constituents who are people of color have reached out to him saying they hoped he would oppose the bill.

“This is not a bill that they feel protects them, it’s a bill that they feel suppresses speech that’s meant to acknowledge historical wrongs that have taken place,” Nash said. “I don’t feel this is something that’s going to protect people who have been historically discriminated against or marginalized.”

‘Tomorrow it may be called something else’

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said she disagreed with legislators such as Kerby that the bill is a “conversation starter” because she and others have been speaking out about their views on the issue since 2019. That year, Ehardt and 27 other legislators wrote a letter to Boise State University President Marlene Tromp stating their concerns over diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives at the university. 

“And with that letter we made it clear that this idea … is not limited to something called critical race theory,” Ehardt said. “That was an example. This idea falls under an umbrella. It may be something such as diversity, equity, inclusion. It may be something such as social justice, something addressed in privilege, critical race theory. Tomorrow it may be called something else, but the point is … that we all should be treated fairly.”

The bill passed on a party-line vote, with the 12 Democrats in the House voting against it. If the bill passes the Senate, it could clear the way for the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to put together another school budget bill.

The vote count for House Bill 377 in the Idaho House of Representatives (Courtesy of Idaho in Session).

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Kelcie Moseley-Morris
Kelcie Moseley-Morris

Kelcie Moseley-Morris is an award-winning journalist who has covered many topics across Idaho since 2011. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and a master’s degree in public administration from Boise State University. Moseley-Morris started her journalism career at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, followed by the Lewiston Tribune and the Idaho Press.