Bill aimed at social justice topics in schools headed to governor’s desk

One Idaho Republican broke ranks to oppose House Bill 377

By: - April 26, 2021 5:06 pm

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

The Idaho Senate passed a bill aimed at addressing social justice topics in public schools, potentially clearing the way for a $1.1 billion public school budget to pass the House of Representatives after it was voted down in early April.

Senators voted 27-8 to pass House Bill 377, with one Republican voting against it. It now heads to Gov. Brad Little’s desk for approval or rejection.

The bill 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. It includes a provision that would cut funding from a school found to be in violation of the bill’s prohibitions.

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, said he was voting no because he did not want to see “critical race theory” ascribed in Idaho statute and did not like the process used to pass the bill. Critical race theory is an academic idea tied to views that the United States’ law and legal institutions are inherently racist. Idaho teachers and organizations, along with the Idaho State Board of Education, have said the theory is not part of curriculum in any public schools and said children are not being “indoctrinated” with the theory in Idaho schools. 

“It’s not because I don’t have concerns, all of us do, with such theories as critical race theory. However, I am more concerned with the path we took to get here,” Johnson said. “And I think we are setting a precedent for next year and future sessions going down this road. So that does concern me.”

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, introduced the bill to the Senate by talking about how the legislation was crafted. Crabtree said the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee tried to “thread the needle” with the public school funding bill by drafting intent language that would prohibit public school dollars from being used for subjects related to critical race theory. However, he said the language could only go so far before it needed to become a policy bill. Crabtree acknowledged the bill was necessary for “getting our budgets cleared through education on both sides of the rotunda.”

Few senators stood to speak in favor of the bill, but Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, was one of them. He is chairman of the Senate Education Committee who had presided over testimony in the committee approximately an hour before he cut off testimony and the full Senate voted on the bill. Thayn said on the Senate floor that he wanted to talk about what the bill did not do. 

“It does not censor history. We can talk about history,” Thayn said. “There’s nowhere in the bill that something in history can’t be talked about. The racism that has existed or the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement or anything in history is not banned by this bill.” Thayn added it only prohibited compelling students to personally affirm social justice beliefs. 

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, agreed with Johnson in objecting to the process used to pass the bill and said she thought it was disrespectful to educators across the state.

“This is a slap to the openness of our university systems and free speech. And I just think it’s time that we recognize this for what it is,” Ward-Engelking said. “It’s a hostage situation to get our budget bills through. And I think that’s a dangerous path for us to be going down when we’re passing policy that isn’t needed because we can’t get our appropriation bills through.”

Little has five days to sign or veto the bill, or allow it to become law without his signature. 

Education committee limited testimony prior to Senate vote

The Senate Education Committee met for about 90 minutes to take testimony and a vote on passing the bill to the Senate floor. The full Senate was scheduled to reconvene at 3 p.m., which led Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, to cut off testimony after an hour. Several others, including parents, still wanted to speak. Some giving testimony were passionate and angry about the bill, including one person who was upset at the end of the hearing that she was not allowed to speak.

During the hearing, Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, questioned Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, about specific examples anywhere in the country of conduct that would violate what is spelled out in the bill. Young said she couldn’t give specific examples at the hearing but shared a “personal experience.”

“A number of legislators had the opportunity to speak with Boise State (University) students who came and shared their personal experiences,” Young said. “Some of them have been made to write papers affirming things about themselves personally which they found to be offensive and violated their personal conscience. There have been students who have been silenced and students that have been disciplined.” 

Andy Grover, director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, testified before the committee and said the position of the organization toward the bill is “neutral,” but that this version was an improvement from earlier drafts that sought to limit certain books or define “sectarianism.”

“I’ve spent the better part of my life now in this profession. Everything we do is try to better our kids and better our state,” Grover said. “So when those initial bills came out, it was a huge … slap in our face to, you know, point a finger at us and say we’re indoctrinating kids.”

Grover said he and members of his organization still have questions about how the penalty related to school funding outlined in the bill will be enforced, and who would make the decision to withhold funding – such as the Idaho Legislature or the Idaho School Board Association. Senators did not address an answer to that question.

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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.