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Idaho lawmakers call for axing parts of new school science standards

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 7, 2018, 9:32 p.m.

Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, listens as Idaho state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, right, addresses the House Education Committee about school science standards on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, listens as Idaho state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, right, addresses the House Education Committee about school science standards on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

An Idaho House committee voted 12-4 on Wednesday to strip out large sections of the state’s proposed new school science standards, including standards for teaching kids about renewable and nonrenewable energy resources and their impacts on the environment – including air pollution.

Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, said he felt that standard “led to conclusions,” and he wanted to ensure that all of the state’s new science standards were “inquiry based,” letting students reach their own conclusions.

The decision isn’t final, as the Senate Education Committee still gets to weigh in. And if senators don’t go along, the standards still could be enacted in full.

Syme is the same representative who last year successfully proposed stripping out five sections of the standards about the science of climate change. Idaho is the only state whose legislature has required such a move. At the Legislature’s request, the state Department of Education convened experts, held hearings around the state and revised those five standards, then brought back all 375 sections for approval again this year.

In addition to excising the energy standard, Syme proposed removing large sections of “supporting content” that were included with each of the proposed standards.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, compared that supporting content to giving a new college basketball coach specific plays to learn, in addition to performance standards – she said that wasn’t necessary.

Rep. John McCrostie, D-Boise, said elementary school teachers need the supporting content to help them understand how to teach science standards, but the majority of the committee remained unconvinced.

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who had expressed doubt about climate change during an earlier hearing, said, “My conclusion has been it’s not the standards that have been causing all the debate and the discussion. It’s when we get into the supporting content.”

State Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra said the most important thing was to approve the new standards – if Idaho doesn’t update its science standards this year, the third year that lawmakers have been reviewing them, it’ll revert to outdated 2001 standards.

“I believe the intent of the supporting content was a direction, but the schools can make it work,” Ybarra told the lawmakers. “Schools will figure it out. The information will still be available. It doesn’t need to be a state mandate.”

She added, “We can’t unring the bell – that information is out there and it is a local decision. If they call me up and ask for it, I’ll make it available. … It’s a public document, they can find it. We will offer many resources to help districts. They will make the standards work.”

At the earlier hearing, 100 percent of the extensive public testimony favored the proposed standards.

McCrostie moved to approve the standards in full as submitted, but his motion failed on a 5-11 vote. Syme’s proposal to remove sections then passed, 12-4.

Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, voted for both motions, but said afterward that he strongly supported approving the standards as-is, with no deletions.

“It partly has to do with just the weird intricacies and complications of the rules approval process,” Amador said, saying he just wanted to make sure some new standards were approved.

“The process was completely transparent – we had experts from throughout the state that were working on this issue, some of our best and brightest science teachers and professionals in industry working on it, so to me it was a no-brainer,” Amador said. “I’m fairly certain no one on the House Education Committee is a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, an astronomer or any other scientist. We’re going to rely on that group of experts to come in and provide these recommendations.”

Last year, because the House committee insisted on deleting five sections regarding climate change from the standards, while leaving the other 370 sections intact, the Senate Education Committee essentially was forced to go along. The Senate panel, after hearing strong testimony against the move, asked House members to reconsider, but they declined. So the Senate panel agreed to back the House’s move. If the two houses had taken differing positions, Idaho would have reverted back to its previous 2001 science standards.

But that was the procedure for a “temporary rule” under Idaho’s administrative rules process. This year, it’s a “pending rule.” That means unless both houses reject it, the rule will take effect and become permanent.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, was noncommittal about his panel’s plans. “We’ll either concur or not,” he said.


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