The Idaho House on Thursday approved legislation aimed at preventing public and charter schools and universities from teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.
The measure, which passed with a 57-12 vote and no Democratic support, would prevent educators from making students “affirm, adopt or adhere to” belief systems claiming individuals of any race, sex, ethnicity, religion or national origin are responsible for past actions done by members of the same group. It also would prohibit teachers from forcing students onto belief systems that claim a group of people as defined by sex, race, ethnicity or religion are inferior or superior to another.
The legislation comes amid a national reckoning on how race and racism influences policing and other realms of American life. Republican Idaho lawmakers are concerned federal authorities could force belief systems on Idaho students through school curricula — calling the ideas often found in critical race theory “contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being” of the state.
As a result, GOP lawmakers have been holding up crucial education budget bills until some type of bill addressing what can be taught in schools is passed. The House earlier this month killed a $1.1 billion teacher pay bill for that reason.
Backers said the bill is an antidiscrimination measure intended to spell out expectations for Idaho schools and universities following an executive order by President Joe Biden issued in January titled Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities. The administration followed up earlier this week with proposed federal rules that some Idaho lawmakers view as a threat to the state because federal dollars are attached to the policy.
“We are now facing an extraordinary and rapidly evolving federal takeover of curriculum in our local public schools,” said Republican Rep. Wendy Horman, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Opponents of the measure said Idaho already has antidiscrimination protections in place, and all the measure will do is stifle classroom discussions about difficult topics that will leave Idaho students lacking knowledge and understanding.
Republican Rep. Lance Clow, chairman of the House Education Committee, supported the measure.
He said he was shocked Idaho didn’t have such a law in place decades ago when he was growing up during the Civil Rights era “to make sure that these types of issues weren’t going on the schools, because I’m sure they were.”
“I’m sure,” he continued, “minorities were feeling compelled to take certain beliefs and certain directions that now, on the flip side of that, you know, this white Anglo Saxon Christian feels like, well, maybe the tables have turned, and maybe we should have recognized there were problems in the past, and maybe we didn’t.”
Democratic Rep. Colin Nash said minority constituents in his district had told him they didn’t like the measure.
“This is a bill they feel suppresses speech that is meant to acknowledge historical wrongs that have taken place,” he said. “I don’t feel that this is going to protect people that have been historically discriminated against or marginalized.”
Last year, then-President Donald Trump cracked down on diversity training at federal agencies that employed critical race theory. The theme has been picked up in Idaho. Trump carried the state in November’s presidential election with 64% of the vote.
Opponents of the measure said critical race theory isn’t even defined in the measure. For some, the theory is simply looking at how race and racism have shaped the nation. But for other lawmakers, it’s seen as an attempt to pit various groups against each other.
“Critical race theory makes students feel bad or inferior or superior sometimes based on the color of their skin,” said Republican Rep. Ron Nate. “Critical race theory imposes the belief that there is an oppressive majority and an aggrieved minority because of the color of his or skin, or their gender or whatever metric is being used.”
Backers of the bill said that it would not limit discussions on any topics.
“This bill does not prohibit teaching any particular content from the Civil War to the Holocaust to the French Revolution to sexism, racism, communism or any other ism,” said Horman.
But Democratic Rep. Steve Berch said the legislation would have the opposite effect.
“What this bill winds up doing in practical terms is intimidation,” he said. “This bill, not necessarily intended, but for sure there are people who will use this bill to intimidate teachers, school administrators, school clerks to make sure they don’t do anything that might in any way be considered controversial.”
The bill now goes to the Senate.