BOISE — Within three hours Monday afternoon, the Senate pushed a controversial public school “nondiscrimination” bill to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.
Voting nearly along party lines, the Senate signed off on House Bill 377 — after a contentious hour-long committee hearing, with testimony mostly in opposition, and after Democrats continued to press for specific evidence of social justice and critical race theory instruction in public schools.
HB 377 — which says teachings such as critical race theory “exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria” — has become a flashpoint in a bitter Statehouse debate over social justice. The debate has been one of the defining issues of the 2021 session, the third longest in state history, and has left several education budget bills in limbo. The House passed HB 377 along party lines Thursday, setting the stage for Monday’s Senate votes.
A question of need
Senate Education Committee Democrats started Monday’s committee hearing by grilling sponsors about the need for HB 377 — and examples of problems in K-12 and higher education classrooms.
As legislators and stakeholders tried to hammer out the language of HB 377, they focused on a proactive attempt to prevent indoctrination in schools, rather than chronicling examples, the bill’s Senate sponsor said Monday.
“It seemed inappropriate … to list those incidents and go through a verification process,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville.
A House co-sponsor, Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, also declined to go into specifics.
However, she said it is “abundantly clear” that the Biden administration will push at the federal level for critical race theory and social justice instruction.
The lack of detail left Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking comparing HB 377 to a boogeyman under the bed. “I think this slaps the teachers and our universities and our colleges,” said Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, a retired teacher.
Sonia Galaviz, a fifth-grade teacher from Boise’s Garfield Elementary School, pointed out that local school boards and the State Board of Education haven’t raised specific concerns.
“Believe your own eyes, gather your own evidence,” Galaviz said.
A linchpin to passing budgets?
As senators debated HB 377, several key education budget bills remain in limbo. Earlier this month, the House voted down a $1.1 billion teacher salary budget and a $315 million higher education budget, with conservatives calling for safeguards against indoctrination in schools. A $6 million federal early education grant bill remains on hold in the House, over similar issues.
Crabtree repeatedly described HB 377 as a vehicle to break the budget logjam by addressing lawmakers’ concerns.
“The Legislature’s the banker, whether you like it or not,” Crabtree said during the Senate Education hearing.
Two speakers in committee acknowledged political reality, and the need to secure school funding. Idaho Association of School Administrators executive director Andy Grover acknowledged concerns with the bill — “There is a fear that we will be a little nervous about what we teach,” he said — but said HB 377 could resolve the budget impasse. IASA has remained neutral on HB 377.
Lawmakers expressed mixed opinions as well. Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, lamented the “misinformation” surrounding the social justice debate, but said he would support HB 377 in the interest of bringing the budget debate to closure.
Ward-Engelking compared the end-of-session politicking to a “hostage situation.”
The budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will meet Tuesday morning to rewrite the teacher salary and higher education budgets, a meeting scheduled before Monday’s Senate action.
An emotional debate
In committee and on the Senate floor, debate and testimony centered on issues of free speech and race.
“The true purpose of this bill seems to me to be intimidation,” said Shiva Rajbhandari, a Boise High School sophomore, who said the bill’s vague language could prevent teachers to discuss the history of people of color.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Jim Rice said the bill simply ensures that students won’t be compelled to believe people should be treated differently on the basis of “silly distinguishments.” Said Rice, R-Caldwell: “This bill doesn’t attack free speech, it defends it.”
Both hearings were tense. After an hour of public testimony in committee, Senate Education Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, cut off further testimony, over Democrats’ objection. After receiving emails on the issue for days, Thayn said, “I don’t think further testimony is going to make a difference.”
After the committee voted to send the bill to the Senate floor, one member of the audience confronted lawmakers, chanting, “Shame on you.”
Later, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, the Senate’s presiding officer, paused floor debate to admonish spectators to maintain decorum.