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Idaho Governor Signs Bill To Ban Critical Race Theory In Schools

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

During his last months in office, former President Trump ordered federal agencies to stop racial sensitivity trainings, including those based on so-called critical race theory. That theory holds, in part, that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws. President Biden has since rescinded that order by his predecessor, but the push to ban the teaching of racial justice theories has now moved to the states. This week, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed a bill pushed by Republican state lawmakers that aims to outlaw teaching critical race theory and other social justice concepts in the public schools. James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio has this report

JAMES DAWSON, BYLINE: In early January, Wayne Hoffman, the president of the influential libertarian lobbying group the Idaho Freedom Foundation, released a new episode of the group's podcast. In it, Hoffman urged lawmakers to target the state's higher ed institutes, including Boise State University and University of Idaho.

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WAYNE HOFFMAN: Both schools use public money to advance an anti-American agenda better suited for Portland or Seattle.

DAWSON: Hoffman in the past has said government shouldn't be in the education business and has called public colleges and universities, quote, "indoctrination factories." He's since pushed lawmakers to tie funding to the condition that school teachers in the state won't include social justice concepts in the classroom. And that campaign has been effective. Here's Republican Representative Heather Scott.

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HEATHER SCOTT: We need to protect our teachers from being forced to teach this garbage of social justice, including critical race theory.

DAWSON: So last month, lawmakers wrote a bill to withhold state funding from schools if teachers compel students to believe certain viewpoints which lawmakers say are, quote, "often found in critical race theory." They even stopped working on parts of the education budget until the measure passed. But critics of the bill, like Democratic Representative Steve Birch, say there's no widespread evidence these concepts are even being pushed by teachers.

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STEVE BERCH: What you have is an endless series of anecdotes, hearsay, conjecture, innuendo, emails, social media, robocalls, guilt-by-association arguments.

DAWSON: Even lawmakers who eventually voted for the bill, like Republican Representative Julie Yamamoto, a former superintendent herself, say it wasn't a problem.

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JULIE YAMAMOTO: In my 32 years in two different school districts, a public charter school, I never saw any of this happening, and I still don't see that happening.

DAWSON: In the face of that, supporters eventually reframed the argument. Republican Representative Wendy Horman pointed to a recent executive order from the Biden administration creating optional grants for teachers who want to use social justice concepts in their lesson plans.

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WENDY HORMAN: We are now facing an extraordinary and rapidly evolving federal takeover of curriculum in our local public schools.

DAWSON: But all curriculum in Idaho is approved by local school boards. Andy Grover, head of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, says the accusations were a tough pill to swallow.

ANDY GROVER: It was a huge, as we felt, slap in our face to, you know, to point finger at us and say we're indoctrinating kids.

DAWSON: Shiva Rajbhandari, an Asian American high school sophomore in Boise, called the bill government censorship.

SHIVA RAJBHANDARI: Idaho is nearly 90% white. Members of the legislature hate people who look like me so much that they will do anything within their power to hide the history of oppression that people of color have experienced.

DAWSON: Still, the Idaho legislature comfortably approved the bill. Governor Brad Little signed it, but called it a distraction from funding education. Lawmakers considered the need for the legislation so dire that they added a clause to make it effective immediately. For NPR News, I'm James Dawson in Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

James Dawson joined Boise State Public Radio as the organization's News Director in 2017. He oversees the station's award-winning news department. Most recently, he covered state politics and government for Delaware Public Media since the station first began broadcasting in 2012 as the country's newest NPR affiliate. Those reports spanned two governors, three sessions of the Delaware General Assembly, and three consequential elections. His work has been featured on All Things Considered and NPR's newscast division. An Idaho native from north of the time zone bridge, James previously served as the public affairs reporter and interim news director for the commercial radio network Inland Northwest Broadcasting. His reporting experience included state and local government, arts and culture, crime, and agriculture. He's a proud University of Idaho graduate with a bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. When he's not in the office, you can find James fly fishing, buffing up on his photography or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.