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Idaho Lt. Gov. McGeachin’s task force pushes school choice recommendation

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, center, and Rep. Priscilla Giddings speak on May 27 during their first education indoctrination task force meeting at the Idaho Capitol.  (Nik Streng/Idaho Education News)
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, center, and Rep. Priscilla Giddings speak on May 27 during their first education indoctrination task force meeting at the Idaho Capitol. (Nik Streng/Idaho Education News)
By Clark Corbin Idaho Capital Sun

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s education task force threw its support behind schools choice options for parents during its final scheduled meeting Thursday at the Idaho Statehouse.

By a voice vote, task force members approved a recommendation, which it will forward to the Legislature.

“One example of education choice is that the Legislature should direct the state of Idaho to establish an education savings account (ESA) for each school-aged child in Idaho,” the recommendation reads. “With an ESA, each parent/legal guardian of a school-aged child receives a deposit of public funds into government authorized savings accounts – accessible via debit card – with restricted uses.”

Permitted uses would include enrollment in a public charter or school district, private school tuition, tutoring services, homeschool expenses, online learning programs, savings for college and more.

Task force member Ryan Spoon, a father of four students who attend a private Christian school, led the push for the school choice recommendation.

He said school choice, where parents could pull their students out if the school doesn’t listen, is the only way to combat critical race theory and Marxist teachings that Spoon claims are widespread and taught in every Idaho school district. Members of the Idaho State Board of Education have pushed back against that assessment and have said they have not received any credible examples that social justice indoctrination is being taught in Idaho schools.

“They have demonstrated that they are committed beyond law, beyond reason, this is an ideology they will pursue no matter what,” Spoon said during the meeting.

“We can make rules until we are blue in the face, but they just won’t stop,” Spoon added.

What could happen next with the task force’s recommendations?

McGeachin’s task force only has the power to issue recommendations, not write laws or change policy.

Moving to blanket education savings accounts is a change that could require an amendment to the Idaho Constitution, which prohibits spending public dollars on religious institutions, including religious schools. To amend the state constitution, it would take a two-thirds vote of each chamber of the Legislature and require voter approval at the polls.

The task force also issued a recommendation that the Legislature make rules prohibiting the use of federal grants that promote the practice of critical theories or educational models that promote race-based stereotypes.

The task force also voted to rewrite House Bill 377, the so-called anti-indoctrination law passed earlier in 2021 and to develop testimony for the State Board of Education as it develops a rule about diversity and education equity. The task force also called for inviting members of the House and Senate education committees to work together to develop additional proposals for the upcoming legislative session.

Throughout four meetings this summer, the task force struggled to define critical race theory or quantify where, when and how often it is or is not being taught in Idaho’s schools system.

At various times, task force members said critical race theory was the embodiment of modern Civil Rights ideologies. The task force members and speakers it heard from lumped it in with topics such as social justice, equity and diversity, communism, Marxism and socialism as well. On Thursday, speakers added social-emotional learning to the list.

McGeachin’s task force is not a governing body and does not have the power to write laws or create policy. However, legislators could introduce any of her recommendations in bill form when the Legislature convenes for the 2022 session in January.

Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, served as the vice chairwoman of the education task force. Earlier this month, the House Ethics and Policy Committee voted unanimously to recommend the Legislature censure Giddings for conduct unbecoming of a legislator after she posted a far-right blog that identified the name and photo of an alleged rape victim who served as a legislative intern.

Three other legislators attended at least part of Thursday’s meetings, including Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls and Sen. Regina Bayer, R-Meridian.

Other state government officials, stakeholders did not participate

The task force essentially operated outside of the rest of the state government and the state’s public school and higher education systems. Gov. Brad Little and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra did not participate. State Board of Education members and staff did not participate in any of the four meetings, though the president and executive director participated in a conference call with task force leaders and then submitted written testimony.

The Idaho Education Association, the statewide teachers union, did not participate. Idaho School Boards Association, which represents thousands of volunteer school board members across the state, also did not participate. Idaho School Boards Association President-elect Jason Knopp quit the task force June 4, Idaho Education News reported, after expressing concern that the task force was “more about partisan campaigning than it does approaching a sensitive topic with respect, care and the involvement of all voices at the table.”

McGeachin and Giddings are running for higher office in 2022. McGeachin is running for governor in the Republican primary, and Giddings is running for lieutenant governor in the Republican primary.

Task force took public testimony for first time

At various times Thursday, committee members and those who testified spoke in favor of teaching about America’s history of limited government, respect for elders, patriotism and loving the country and American flag, traditional American stories, and “in God we trust.”

One of the people who spoke Thursday, Amy Pope Henry from the group Parents for Freedom and Liberty, urged the task force to twice criminalize the teaching of critical race theory.

The Facebook transparency page for Henry’s group indicates that the group was previously called Nampa Parents for MASK FREE Schools earlier this year and that the group’s name has changed five times.

Shiva Rajbhandari, a Boise High School junior, criticized the task force for not accepting public testimony at its previous meetings. Shiva said delaying public testimony until school was in session made it so young people and teachers wouldn’t be able to testify, while three previous meetings without testimony took place during summer vacation with students in the audience.

“It is really unfortunate that our Idaho government is choosing to focus on something that is not happening rather than the issues that are affecting students right now during this pandemic year, which has been hard on students’ mental health,” Shiva said during the meeting.

“You won’t succeed in silencing student voices, you won’t succeed at bringing Idaho back to the 1800s, you won’t succeed at abolishing public schools as the (Idaho) Freedom Foundation aspires, and you won’t succeed at being elected to the executive branch of state government, which I feel is the true purpose of this,” Shiva told McGeachin and Giddings during the meeting.

The task force does not have any other meetings scheduled, McGeachin told the Idaho Capital Sun after Thursday’s meeting. However, the task force members will likely continue to talk about proposals over the phone and with legislators going forward, she said.

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