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BOISE — Controversial legislation aimed at easing some House Republicans’ fears that students are being indoctrinated as leftists in Idaho’s public schools and colleges rocketed through the Senate on Monday, clearing both a committee and the full Senate in a single afternoon.

More than 100 Idaho students ranging from 8th grade through college gathered on the Statehouse steps to protest against HB 377, but midway through their protest learned the Senate had suspended its rules and was taking the bill up immediately. The students rushed up to the Senate gallery, where they filled every seat; the bill passed 27-8, on a near-party-line vote.

“Many people seem to think that teaching our students about the cruelty and suffering of our country’s past is some form of self-hatred for our own country. But, make no mistake, this is self-awareness,” said Yvonne Shen, an eighth grader at North Junior High and a member of the Idaho Asian American Pacific Islander Youth Alliance, which organized the protest. “If we aren’t able to recognize our own flaws, we will never be able to progress beyond them.”

The bill is a much-watered-down version of several proposals that preceded it, with earlier versions equating teaching “critical race theory” to “sectarianism” in Idaho schools, which is banned in the Idaho Constitution; or creating a new class of banned books on Idaho school and university campuses.

Senate Education Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “There’s no topic banned in the bill, there’s no book banned in the bill. It does not censor history, you can talk about anything in history. … In fact it does not ban the teaching of critical race theory, it doesn’t ban that. It doesn’t ban anything. What it says is that you cannot compel students to adopt or adhere” to certain principles.

Those principles are described in the bill as “often found in ‘critical race theory,’” and declared to be counter to state education policies calling for dignity, respect, and freedom of speech. They include that any sex, race, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior; that anyone should be treated adversely because of those factors; or that any person is responsible for past actions of those with whom they share those factors.

The bill forbids Idaho schools, at any level, from acting to “compel” students to “personally affirm, adopt or adhere to” those principles, on pain of losing public funding.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a lobbying group that opposes public funding for education, has been campaigning heavily against “critical race theory” and “social justice indoctrination” in Idaho schools and colleges, prompting the Idaho House to kill major budgets funding public school teacher salaries and Idaho’s higher education system this year. New version of both budgets are scheduled to be set in the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning; lawmakers held off until HB 377 could be considered first.

Late last week, the State Board of Education discussed the matter in a two-day meeting, and said it’s received no complaints about such “indoctrination” in Idaho schools.

“This bill relates to getting our budgets cleared,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, the bill’s Senate sponsor. Acknowledging there’s little evidence of indoctrination in Idaho schools, he said, “Prevention is the best medicine. And maybe that is what this bill is about.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, spoke out against the measure.

“This legislation is not needed,” she said. “Our universities and school districts already have procedures in place that will deal with any problem we have in curriculum. What’s happening is we have a group that’s put out for public release comments that our teachers are brainwashing our children with a liberal leftist indoctrination. And that’s simply not true. And we need to call that out. If that were true … we would not be the reddest state in the nation.”

“I just think it’s time that we recognize it for what it is, it’s a hostage situation to get our budget going through,” Ward-Engelking said, “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 appropriations through, and that is our job as a Legislature, that is our top priority for being here.”

Just one Senate Republican, Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, joined all seven Senate Democrats in opposing the bill; all other Senate Republicans voted in favor. The bill moves to the governor’s desk. It earlier passed the House on a straight party-line vote.

Johnson said he favored removing the phrase “critical race theory” from the bill, because it wasn’t in the operative sections of the bill anyway, just in its “intent” section.’

Rep. Julianne Young, D-Blackfoot, co-sponsor of the measure, told Johnson during the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill Monday afternoon that removing the phrase wouldn’t be acceptable to its sponsors.

Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, repeatedly asked for a definition of “critical race theory.”

Young said, “Critical race theory is a formal academic discipline. If you were to Google it, you would find abundant descriptions of what is contained in it. As it’s not the operative part of the bill, it didn’t seem necessary to provide a definition in the definitions section of the language.”

She also declined to give any examples of incidents in Idaho that would have constituted violations of the bill.

Twelve people testified at the committee hearing, with just two in favor of the bill, eight strongly against, and two neutral, including Andy Grover, head of the Idaho Association of School Administrators. Earlier versions of the bill, Grover said, were perceived as “a huge … slap in our face to point a finger at us and say we’re indoctrinating kids.”

As for HB 377, he said, “We’ve stayed neutral on it as we’ve heard this is the one to finally get our budgets through and push those through, because we’re working in late April,” and school districts’ budgeting deadlines for the next school year are approaching. He said school administrators still have misgivings about the bill, including “a fear that we will be a little nervous of what we teach.”

“But overall … this legislation covers pretty much what’s in current practice now,” Grover said.

College students, teachers and parents spoke out against the bill.

“We have huge issues. This is not one of them,” said teacher Julie Davis. Tracy Olson of Boise said her kids attended public school, as has everyone in her extended family.

“We have never heard of any outcry over the indoctrination of students,” she said. “This is a made-up crisis, this does not exist.”

Jim Reynolds of Eagle, speaking in favor of the bill, said he believes critical race theory is the latest version of Marxism.

“In the 1960s they focused on race rather than class,” he said. “Fortunately for us, the scheme was overtaken by the civil rights movement, and Dr. King prevailed with his promise of a better life. … In the ‘90s, this theory came back. … Now to be white was automatically to be racist.”

Nicholas Kularik, a Ph.D. student at Boise State University, said, “This bill proposes a reduction of academic integrity at the university where I’ve chosen to do my doctoral research, but this bill matters to all Idahoans, because HB 377 prevents Idahoans from getting what we really want and need, better public education. The extreme right Idaho Freedom Foundation accuses public schools of indoctrinating students and that students are being fed a constant diet of lies about America. This is simply not true.”

“By ignoring advances in social theory and objective historical truths, students will be indoctrinated into a world of ignorance,” Kularik said.

Thayn, the committee chairman, cut off testimony after a dozen people, though about 15 more had signed up to testify, because the Senate was due to reconvene at 3 p.m.

“The legislation is not intended to be punitive,” Crabtree said. “I have told my school people that you’re going to see very little if any effect from this, probably none, because you’re already providing a balanced education.”

He said the bill is a compromise, with about 20 lawmakers involved in crafting it and none of them fully satisfied, with the idea of clearing a path to pass the stalled public school budget in the House.

Thayn said he believes critical race theory involves the idea that racism prevents people from getting ahead, so the whole system must be torn down and changed.

“Critical race theory tends to undermine the thesis that each of us are responsible for our actions,” Thayn said. “This just reminds us what their proper role as a teacher really is.”

Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she was always told when growing up that she could do anything if she worked hard enough, so as a skilled baseball player, she wanted to join Little League. But she wasn’t allowed to, solely because she was a girl. Sexism is something she’s experienced in various ways throughout her life, she said. Wintrow said the nation has been examining issues surrounding race more intensely since the killing of George Floyd.

“It’s not just an individual act of meanness,” she said. Issues of race have been woven into institutions including law enforcement, she said, and the nation has been forced to examine itself. “It is absolutely uncomfortable to talk about issues of race, class and gender, but it’s absolutely necessary,” Wintrow said.

Nelson told the Senate, “We’re doing this when we have no time to debate all-day kindergarten. … We don’t have time to make a concrete improvement to our K-12 educational system, but we’ll work on this. It just really distresses me.”

As the senators debated, the students in the gallery watched intently. After one senator denied the bill censored anything, one student hissed “that’s not true,” loud enough to echo across the chamber. Following Wintrow’s debate, some in the crowd clapped quietly and got a rap from Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s gavel in return.

Afterward, Ethan Ricks, a BSU freshman, said, “It’s disheartening to see so many people had the wrong idea in our Senate. It’s so unrepresentative of the general public. It’s sad, you know?”

Zeth Roark, a sophomore at BSU, said he hoped the sight of so many young people watching from above would at least send a message to legislators. “We’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” Roark said.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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