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Idaho Senate panel agrees to delete climate change from new school science standards

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 28, 2017, 10:02 p.m.

The Idaho Senate Education Committee hears testimony on proposed new school science standards on Feb. 27, 2017, at the state Capitol in Boise. (Betsy Z. Russell)
The Idaho Senate Education Committee hears testimony on proposed new school science standards on Feb. 27, 2017, at the state Capitol in Boise. (Betsy Z. Russell)

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers have stripped references to climate change out of new state science standards.

Members of the Senate Education Committee tried to persuade their House counterparts to keep five sections that talk about climate change, but the senators reported the House wouldn’t budge, so they reluctantly gave in.

“Those rejections by the House are standing,” Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate panel Monday afternoon. “And so with that in mind, I think that it’s important that we maintain the 370 out of the 375 standards.”

So Mortimer moved to match the House panel’s action – approve the new standards with the exception of the five on climate change. His motion passed on a party-line vote, with the panel’s two minority Democrats dissenting.

At a hearing on the standards before the Senate committee on Friday, nearly two dozen people spoke, ranging from young students to university professors, parents to scientists. All but one spoke out strongly in favor of adopting the proposed new school science standards in full – not deleting the five portions that refer to climate change. The one dissenter opposed all science standards.

If lawmakers this year don’t approve the new science standards, Idaho will revert to its old science standards, which haven’t been updated since 2001. The standards set minimum benchmarks for what students should learn in school each year; they don’t prevent schools from teaching additional topics beyond those.

“This is a real dilemma,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, “because I realize if I do not support the good chairman’s motion, it could mean we reject standards and go back to 2-decade-old standards. But I cannot in good conscience reject sections that deal with biodiversity, human impact and climate change, so this senator will be voting no.”

House committee members, led by freshman Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, agreed to the new standards only with the five deletions. Syme said he thought the deleted parts didn’t discuss “both sides of the issue.”

The standards were developed by the state Board of Education, state Department of Education and top Idaho science teachers after a year of public input. Because they were proposed as a temporary rule, both the House and Senate must agree on them, or they expire at the end of this year’s legislative session.

Next year, the final version of the standards will come back to lawmakers as a pending rule. At that point, the rule would stand unless both houses reject it.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said after visiting with House members and House GOP leaders, “I believe it’s the intention of the Legislature not to reject the topics, that we think climate change needs to be studied, that CO2 levels need to be studied. What we’re basically sending to the committee is that those standards need to be rewritten.”