With some budgets still undecided this session, legislators gear up for next big fight

One of the longest legislative sessions in Idaho history continues

Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Even though the Idaho Legislature is still at odds over issues blocking adjournment of the 2021 legislative session, a committee hearing on Monday offered a glimpse into one of the next big political debates.

The House Education Committee met Monday to discuss drafting a letter to Gov. Brad Little, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and the State Board of Education about replacing the Idaho Content Standards for public schools.

Standards are essentially a set of expectations that students should meet based on the grade level they are in. For example, Earth sciences standard 1-1-1 is “use observations of the sun, moon and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted.”

Academic standards have been a hot topic in the Legislature for years, and standards in math, science and English language arts are set for a rewrite that is expected to come to the Legislature in 2022.

Although Idaho Education News has reported that public comment and testimony, particularly among teachers, favored the standards, Republican legislators have blamed the state standards for a bevy of local decisions, everything from math homework assignments parents couldn’t understand to reading assignments such as “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel about European colonialism in Nigeria. The discussion has gotten political. Legislators picked apart the science standards in a recent multiyear tug of war after Republicans complained about references to climate change and human impact on the environment. 

Some conservative legislators also say the academic standards should be friendlier to industries such as mining and promote American culture and exceptionalism.

“In the introductory material of our current standards, there is a rather significant paragraph about understanding other cultures and other things, and that in and of itself isn’t bad, but there is absolutely not one statement in the introductory material about learning to appreciate our own culture,” Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, said Monday.

Heading into the rewrite process, House Education Committee members said they want to change the process a bit. 

For the English standards review, some legislators want to appoint a new committee of eight to 10 practicing or retired teachers to provide input and feedback on the process. But at least one legislator doesn’t want just any teacher who would approach the review with an open mind. Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, said she wants to pay teachers to join the committee if they have already decided they want to repeal the current standards.

“If we continue down the path that we have been going, where we have teaching coaches and a lot of university and college folks, we are not going to be focusing on what our directive is: to replace those standards,” Moon said.

When it comes to reviewing proposed math standards, Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, wants to recruit math teachers who will support what the Legislature puts forward to review the proposed standards.

“Get people who are the absolute experts in math, absolutely know this, they are fantastically knowledgeable, but they also are willing to not try to get their way every time and really try to listen to what the issues are that the other side (has),” Kerby said. “If you really know (English language arts) or you really know science or you really know math like these guys do, you can write those standards a lot of different ways. There’s many different choices of phraseologies that you can put into those things.”

But not everybody was on board.

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said the Legislature should get out of the way and let educators and state education agencies handle the process themselves.

“I’m just kind of concerned, Mr. Chairman, about this committee and this legislative body wanting to micromanage education,” Berch said. “Why don’t we let the professionals who are paid fulltime do this job?”

After more than 90 minutes of discussion, Rep. Lance Clow, the Twin Falls Republican who serves as the committee chairman, said he would need to work with the Senate to build consensus around language in the letter before sending it to Little and Ybarra.

Independent of the letter, the State Department of Education is accepting public comment on the English, math and science standards via comment forms on its website through June 1.

State budget still unresolved

The Idaho House of Representatives skipped over many of the education and budget bills on its reading calendar during a brief 45-minute floor session Monday.

Without any debate, the House voted 44-23 to pass Senate Bill 1206, the rewritten budget for the Idaho Attorney General’s office. The House defeated the original budget, House Bill 271, March 5.

But that was only a small piece of the budget.

After taking Monday off, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday to work on two of the major bills the Idaho House rejected earlier this month. JFAC is scheduled to work on setting the public school budget for teacher salaries and the higher education budget. JFAC was originally scheduled to work on the budgets last week but continued the hearings after legislators had a scheduling conflict.

Many legislators say House Bill 377, which the Senate passed Monday, is a key to addressing Republicans concerns about how to address social justice topics in the classroom that were cited when both education budgets died.

One of the longest sessions in Idaho history continues

Monday was the 106th day of the legislative session, the longest in more than 10 years. With each day that is gaveled to a close, legislators are approaching the record for longest session in history, which ran for 118 days in 2003.

The session appears set to go on all week, at a minimum. Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, asked for the Senate to wait to consider overriding Gov. Brad Little’s veto of House Bill 135 until Friday. House Bill 135 is one of two bills dealing with a governor’s authority and emergency declarations that Little vetoed earlier this month. The House has already voted to override House Bill 135.

The other veto will stand, as the Senate tried and failed to override the veto of Senate Bill 1136, the other bill Little vetoed. Senate Bill 1136 would make it so that emergency orders expire after 60 days unless extended by the Legislature.