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‘A very McCarthyism feel’: Idaho teachers say McGeachin’s task force stokes fear, confusion

University of Idaho College of Law professor Shaakirrah Sanders says the education task force headed by Rep. Priscilla Giddings should include more members of diverse backgrounds, including race, gender and education experience.  (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman)
University of Idaho College of Law professor Shaakirrah Sanders says the education task force headed by Rep. Priscilla Giddings should include more members of diverse backgrounds, including race, gender and education experience. (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman)
By Becca Savransky Idaho Statesman

After working for nearly 20 years in public education, Sonia Galaviz said she doesn’t take kindly to bullies. As a fifth-grade teacher in Idaho, she’s not afraid to speak out against what she considers direct attacks on educators like herself.

But in Idaho, many fear what could happen if they do the same.

As the lieutenant governor’s education task force continues to make claims of indoctrination in Idaho schools – and vows to root out “the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism” – Galaviz said teachers are being scared into silence.

“There’s a very McCarthyism feel to the task force and to the accusations being made against educators and public education,” Galaviz said. “Folks are hesitant to speak out for fear of reprimand or being accused directly or personally as to their pedagogy and practice in the classroom.”

Galaviz is one of about a dozen educators the Idaho Statesman spoke with about their responses to the task force and discussions surrounding critical race theory in the state. Many others said they didn’t feel comfortable talking publicly.

The task force on Thursday had its third meeting, which is expected to focus on higher education. The agenda included a presentation from Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin on the response from university presidents and a video presentation on “higher education student experiences.”

In its first two meetings, the task force – which includes few Idaho educators or education stakeholders – has heard only from people who appear to support its claims and efforts. It has not allowed for public comment, but McGeachin said during the last meeting that members would hear from the public once they had proposals or recommendations before them.

Few current teachers have publicly supported the task force and its claims. One exception is Scott Yenor, a political science professor at Boise State University, who is a member of the task force. During the first meeting, he talked about critical theory as believing that “the oppressors are fundamentally and irredeemably evil, while the victims of the oppression are good and pure” and that “the aggrieved get to make the rules.”

Most of the teachers the Statesman spoke with said the task force is a distraction from the real issues affecting students in the state, including how districts are now trying to recover from the immense challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unequivocally, teachers said critical race theory is a complex theory not taught in K-12 schools. But the term is being used as a catch-all to group together issues of race, educators said.

Those who agreed to speak publicly also said the passage earlier this year of House Bill 377, sparked by worries of critical race theory in schools, and formation of the task force created a climate of fear within the classroom. Teachers don’t know what they are allowed to discuss and they’re scared of the repercussions – for themselves and their students, they say.

“I am very fearful,” said Shaakirrah Sanders, a professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Law in Boise. “But I wear that fear loud and proud.”

What is critical race theory and where is it taught?

When the creation of McGeachin’s education task force was announced, the lieutenant governor’s office said in a press release the committee would “examine indoctrination in Idaho education based on critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”

McGeachin claimed that she’d learned through conversations with parents and constituents “that this is one of the most significant threats facing our society today.”

But multiple Idaho teachers said they had never even heard of critical race theory before it started to make headlines. Teachers were confused where it came from and why it all of a sudden was such a big concern – especially since curricula and what they do in the classroom is so transparent, they said.

“My only thought was because it contained the words critical and race that it was an easy target, kind of an amorphous bucket in which you could place your concerns about what was happening in the country writ large,” said Debra Smith, who retired in 2020 after teaching in the state for about 20 years.

Maddie Dew, a teacher in Nampa, said the concept is not “developmentally appropriate” to teach in K-12 schools.

“I don’t know of any classroom who would teach anything remotely close to critical race theory at the primary or secondary level,” she said.

According to the American Bar Association, critical race theory “critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.”

“CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past,” its website said.

But when talking about the term critical race theory, many legislators and public officials in Idaho and across the country “willfully misconstrue” its meaning, said Jeffrey Wilhelm, a distinguished professor at Boise State and co-director of the Boise State Writing Project, which “supports over 3,000 teachers each year with over 110,000 contact hours of professional development.”

“It’s something that I’ve never seen in a school, never heard talked about in a school,” he said. “I feel like the public is being misled in really irresponsible ways that is going to harm teachers, and it’s certainly going to harm students.”

During the task force’s first meeting, members sought to define critical race theory. But teachers who spoke to the Statesman said the task force didn’t produce a clear definition. The educators also questioned the makeup of the task force, which includes few teachers or experts on the theory, and also has a lack of diversity.

“It’s this nebulous catch-all boogeyman that’s being promoted across our country, but for Idaho … without direct evidence of it actually happening in our schools,” Galaviz said. “Coming out of the most difficult year of my profession … it’s really disheartening to attack teachers and to attack public schools in this way. We teach with our heart and guts and minds and bodies and souls, and give everything we can.”

Jen Schneider, a professor and interim associate dean in the School of Public Service at Boise State, said she, too, was confused when she started to see the theory in the news.

“The whole hubbub over critical race theory, it certainly wasn’t on my agenda as a problem that was facing education in Idaho,” she said. “When we started first hearing about it in the news and through the Legislature, I think there was a lot of like, ‘What is going on?’ This is really strange, because most of us don’t teach critical race theory.”

When the lieutenant governor created the task force, though, teachers started to get a better grasp of what they thought was going on, Schneider said. McGeachin is running for governor, likely against incumbent and fellow Republican Brad Little.

“By the time the indoctrination task force was formed,” Schneider said, “I think most of us started to understand that this was being used as a political tool to attack public education.”

‘A distraction from the real needs’ of children

The task force could be harmful to teachers and students in a number of ways, educators said, including taking time away from key issues. Over the past year, teachers had to quickly adapt to the pandemic, tweaking lesson plans to compensate for remote and hybrid learning models.

As the start of a new academic year nears, teachers are hoping to get back to some sort of normalcy in the classroom.

But this year, they will need to address new challenges stemming from the pandemic. Teachers and administrators are still figuring out what was lost over the past year, and how to make up some of that learning so students remain on track.

Now they’re facing uncertainty related to supposed indoctrination, too.

“The biggest problem with the indoctrination task force is it’s a distraction,” said Sharon Hanson, who retired from the Boise School District at the end of this past school year. “It’s a distraction from what’s really happening in the classroom, it’s a distraction from the real needs of our children.”

After the pandemic school year, Schneider said, educators need to get back to “doing what we entered this profession to do” – teaching.

A climate of fear

Teachers said House Bill 377 and the task force discussions make them uncertain about what topics are off-limits and what they can continue teaching. The bill, signed into law earlier this year, prohibits funding to schools that direct students to “affirm, adopt or adhere” to the idea that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin is “inherently superior or inferior” or that people of a certain race or identity are “inherently responsible for actions committed in the past.”

It’s making some teachers scared of doing or saying the wrong thing in the classroom.

“I think teachers and administrations both are so worried about getting in trouble or getting caught by this indoctrination task force that they’re just avoiding a lot of difficult conversations,” Dew said.

But learning shouldn’t be comfortable, she said. Part of teaching is challenging students on what they know.

“I think learning as a whole is an uncomfortable situation for students,” Dew said. “We’re pushing them beyond what they know. So including topics of race or gender or sexuality, yes, it’s uncomfortable for some students, but so is everything else for teaching.”

Kari Filson, who teaches Spanish in Boise, said she could see there being a “witch hunt for teachers.”

“I find it so eerily similar to McCarthyism,” she said, “to have such a vague threat floating in the air around teachers as they go into this new school year.”

The scrutiny likely won’t affect how she teaches, but Filson said she worries for newer teachers, especially those teaching subjects where some of those more difficult conversations take place.

“The goal is to frighten (teachers),” Schneider said. “And I think that will be effective in some cases.”

The teachers who spoke out said it’s important to confront an attack they say is based on misinformation and could have negative impacts on students.

“I would encourage all public educators to speak their truth, to speak up,” Galaviz said, noting a lack of teachers on the task force. “No one has the right to write the narrative of public education unless you’re actually in the trenches doing it. That’s our story.”

Dew said she is voicing concern because “somebody has to.” She said other educators have told her to worry about keeping her job, but she feels obligated to call out what’s happening.

Said Sanders, the first African-American and second person of color to make the rank of full professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Law: “Silence is meaningless in these types of situations.”

Teaching, educators told the Statesman, shouldn’t be politicized.

“They all have one shared commitment, and that’s to help their students develop their fullest capacities as human beings,” Wilhelm said of teachers. “To them that’s not political, it’s what they do. … They feel very much like this is a huge constraint being put on them, that they’re being threatened in doing what they were hired to do.”

The task force has ended up “hijacking the narrative of what education is really all about,” Hanson said.

“They are creating a monster that really doesn’t exist,” she said.

How teachers approach the topic of race

Teachers said it’s impossible to avoid topics of race in the classroom, and it’s important not to. But discussing race and the country’s history doesn’t mean they are indoctrinating students, they said.

“Having a discussion about contemporary movements, political movements, social justice movements, is not indoctrination,” Galaviz said. “Having conversations about what’s going on around our children, around our students every day, is not indoctrination. Those are conversations.”

Galaviz welcomes those conversations. She wants kids to bring questions and concerns to her class, and to teach her students to be critical thinkers.

The country has a “diverse and complicated history,” she said, and it’s important to recognize that.

“I don’t know any reasonable person that would say every United States citizen, from the inception of our country, has had equal footing with every other citizen,” she said. “If we look at inequities historically, or institutions that have made it more difficult for one particular group of people to be successful, that is not unpatriotic. That is not promoting indoctrination, that is teaching our students how to evaluate and analyze the world around them and historical context.”

Galaviz said she loves her country and her students – and it’s impossible to ignore what is happening in the world around them while teaching.

“I love that education gives us the opportunity to wrestle with really challenging concepts and allow kids to come to their own voice,” she said.

Sanders said she “certainly” brings race into the classroom. She teaches on the equal protection clause, and there’s no way to properly teach that unless you “deal with the history of race,” she said.

But she also brings race into other areas, such as when teaching the Roe v. Wade case. Part of the opinion talks about the history and tradition of abortion, such as in ancient Rome and Greece, but skips over the treatment of enslaved women and the rights to their unborn children, or the treatment of American Indian women, she said.

“For me, bringing race into that situation helps us to not just see what’s written, but to see what’s not,” she said.

Even in subjects where topics of race don’t typically come up, it’s impossible to avoid it in the classroom altogether, Dew said.

“It’s rarely that it’s a part of my content … and it’s often addressing comments that happen in the classroom that create an environment where it’s less welcoming for students of certain identities to be there,” she said.

Educators do what they do so they can make each of their students a better person and citizen, Dew said.

“I don’t think that in my specific classroom I can do that without acknowledging those student identities,” Dew said.

And students want to talk about these things – they want to learn about race and different identities, and how that shapes the country, educators said.

“How do you teach about the history of the United States without touching on some of those things … how do you talk about a major world conflict like World War II without talking about ethnicity and race?” Schneider said. “I think a lot of our students would actually like to learn more about race, ethnicity, gender, how those things function in American society, because they’re so foundational to understanding how our country works.”

One of the most prominent talking points that has emerged from the task force is that mentioning race is equated with trying to divide our country, Schneider said.

“And that therefore it should sort of be taboo,” she said. “I just would roundly reject that. I think we can carefully and respectfully discuss race and ethnicity and the history of racism in this country in ways that respect one another … and that would make us stronger as a nation, not weaker.”

Educators said they are just trying to do what’s best for their students.

“I don’t have an agenda to indoctrinate kids,” Galaviz said. “We’re not indoctrinating kids, we’re allowing meaningful conversations.”

What could the long-term impacts be?

Teachers are worried about the potential impacts of the task force – primarily about how it could affect the education of their students.

Public schools should be a safe place where students can discuss difficult subjects and hear different perspectives, Dew said. Students should be able to see and talk about what happened in the past and how it relates to the present, she said.

“The K through 12 school building is a pretty safe place for most students to have these conversations. Students on either side aren’t going to be put in a position … where they’re either embarrassed or intentionally discriminated against,” she said. “If we start to censure what topics we’re able to talk about or willing to talk about, students aren’t getting the full learning experience they deserve.”

Sanders said she doesn’t believe critics want to completely eliminate the topic of race in the classroom.

“I don’t think there’s a desire not to talk about race,” she said. “I think there’s a desire not to talk about the atrocious history of racism in this country.”

What comes out of the task force and makes its way into the legislative session next year could affect funding. This year, the Legislature moved to cut funds to universities in an attempt to target social justice programs.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees that this stuff is intended to discipline faculty or to discipline the types of things that they feel like they can teach,” Schneider said. “It’s a strong silencing mechanism … . Whether or not this translates into additional budget cuts next year, that remains to be seen. I hope not.”

Teachers are also concerned the climate being created could make it difficult for the state to attract new teachers and to keep current ones.

“We in Idaho can’t afford to turn teachers away,” Filson said.

She said she knows teachers who could have kept teaching for a few more years but decided to retire, after having to deal with the attacks on educators while also facing the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

“And to a large degree,” she said, “they’re some of our best teachers.”

Vanessa Anthony-Stevens, an assistant professor of social and cultural studies at the University of Idaho College of Education, said the task force also could keep the state from increasing the representation of teachers of color in the classroom – even as state demographics change.

“I think we will struggle to hire a diverse workforce in our state when we have leadership that is politicizing these kinds of discussions,” she said.

What’s happening now in the state doesn’t make Dew want to leave Idaho, though. It makes her want to work for change, she said.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” she said. “For me as a person, my personality, it would be hard for me to leave a place where I feel like there’s so much left for me to be done.”

But it could affect other teachers in the opposite way.

“I definitely think that if there’s not a culture of admin and district officials supporting their teachers,” she said, “teachers are going to leave.”

In response to students who said they were “terrified” about what could come out of the task force, Sanders said she never could ignore children who “feel afraid of their government.”

“I just can’t imagine that we would be contemplating raising another generation of Americans,” she said, “who are so ignorant on the history of their race.”

Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America.

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