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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho lawmakers approve school science standards in full – with no deletions on climate change

Members of the Senate Education Committee, including Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, center; Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, second from right, and Sen. Lori DenHartog, R-Meridian, meet Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 at the Idaho state Capitol. The panel voted 6-3 in favor of approving new school science standards in full. (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

An Idaho Senate committee voted 6-3 on Thursday to approve new school science standards as is and not delete any parts – ending three years of controversy and debate.

Idaho had been the only state in which legislators had successfully removed references to climate change from school science standards. Friday’s vote ends that distinction for the state.

The Senate Education Committee’s vote means the standards, which lawmakers have been reviewing for the past three years, will take effect in full and become permanent. It comes after a House panel this year voted to strip out one of the standards and all of the “supporting content” supplied with each of the standards.

Last year, the same House panel voted to remove five sections dealing with climate change; those were rewritten and resubmitted.

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who voted with the majority of the committee in favor of the standards, has long made advocacy for STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math – a top priority in his legislative work, and he sponsored legislation to create the state’s STEM Action Center. He said in recent weeks, “Some people have jokingly said to me, ‘If we don’t adopt the standards, it would be called the TEM Action Center.’ ”

At earlier public hearings on the standards held by both the House and Senate education committees, 100 percent of those testifying – including teachers, students, parents, scientists, professors, business leaders and others from throughout the state – supported adopting the standards in full, as is.

On Thursday, Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, proposed approving all the standards but following the House’s lead and removing all the supporting content from the standards document.

Den Hartog said she had no problem with the information in the supporting content sections. “I believe it is good content,” she said. “But once we put it in rule, I think it sets a dangerous precedence for what our role as legislators is.”

“We had a lot of talk about science being inquiry-based and dynamic,” she said. “As soon as we put this in rule, it becomes a lot less dynamic. I think we start hemming people in where we don’t need to.”

In the House, Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, led the move to remove portions of the proposal, saying they had “conclusions drawn in.” He also led the push last year to remove five sections of the standards, saying they weren’t sufficiently balanced.

“There was a lot of negativeness about human activity and its effect on the environment,” Syme told the House last year.

After the House panel’s hearing on Feb. 1, Syme said his concern was “never about climate change” but about making sure the standards were inquiry-based. “I don’t care if the students come up with a conclusion that the earth is flat,” he said, “as long as it’s their conclusion, not something that’s told to them.”

On Feb. 7, the House Education Committee voted to strip out one of the standards about energy resources and pollution, plus all of the “supporting content” supplied with each of the standards, removing large portions of the standards document that a panel of Idaho science teachers and experts developed at the request of the Legislature. The standards had been the topic of multiple public hearings around the state, where comments were overwhelmingly supportive.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, a retired teacher, countered Den Hartog’s proposal with a motion to approve the standards as submitted; Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, seconded it, and it passed 6-3, with just Den Hartog, Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and the committee chairman, Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, dissenting.

Mortimer then said he thought the process had worked well and voices had been heard on all sides.

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, a rancher and first-term senator, spoke out for the first time on the standards on Thursday. “I haven’t been here that long, but this science standards conversation has been going on since I got here,” he said. “So I try to look at things in a fairly simple way, because I’m a fairly simple guy.”

“We had a problem,” he said. “We needed some direction on science standards, right? So if I have a sick cow, I call a vet, I call a specialist. We called some specialists, science teachers. We asked them what they thought, they gave us some recommendations. … We ran it by the public, much as I would run it by my neighbors on the cow problem. … We did that, we ran it by the public, the public that actually elected us to sit here.

“So we take those results. So we brought the results to the Legislature, the Legislature had some conversations about it, didn’t like it so much. So we sent it back through the process. We went to the specialists, we went back to the public, and now we’re back to the Legislature.

“That process, folks, in my view is kind of the American process of success,” Crabtree said. “And if we don’t believe in that process, then we probably don’t like the product. I believe in the process.”