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Idaho lawmakers OK education budget, ‘send a message’ about teaching social justice

May 4, 2021 Updated Tue., May 4, 2021 at 9:07 p.m.

By Hayat Norimine Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers found a solution to getting education budgets over the finish line: Cut $2.1 million from university budgets.

A new measure, House Bill 387, was negotiated among Republican lawmakers as they tried to quell fears from a faction of legislators over universities teaching about critical race theory and providing other social justice programs. The cut, along with a bill against critical race theory, helped garner enough votes in the House to approve education budgets.

Senators in a 25-8 vote Tuesday supported the bill, which previously passed the House and will need Gov. Brad Little’s signature. The legislation would provide nearly $629.9 million for colleges and universities for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. It would cut $500,000 each from the University of Idaho and Idaho State University and $1.5 million from Boise State University.

Of the $629.9 million, $313.1 million would come from state general funds and $32.8 million from federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

The Senate also approved a K-12 education bill that would appropriate $1.13 billion for Idaho public schools and teacher salaries for the fiscal year beginning in July. The legislation, which passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday, would provide an additional $1 million in teacher salaries. The bill also heads to Little’s desk.

The House rejected an earlier version of the bill to approve the K-12 teacher salaries over concerns from a group of Republicans over “indoctrination” and “critical race theory” teachings in public schools.

But it was higher education that drew senators into debate Tuesday.

By Dec. 17, the State Board of Education would be required to report to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee about whether student fees help pay for organizations “focused on individual beliefs and values.”

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R- Grangeville, said the cuts would “send a message” to university officials. Some lawmakers have worked on the bill for “over a year to try to get it right,” he said.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, who voted in favor of the first higher education budget bill, said that bill had been presented to him as a deal that was needed to get the bill passed. It had proposed a $409,000 cut to Boise State over social justice programming. Burgoyne supported it, but the bill failed on the House floor.

“To say that I must confess to my constituents that I got played for a chump on that vote is an understatement,” Burgoyne said. “And now, we’re presented with another deal by people who seem to have a hard time keeping deals. And what will be next?”

Burgoyne questioned what would come the next legislative session. He said there are no true negotiations with people who “try to hold you hostage.”

Legislation ‘embarrassing,’ senator says

Legislators broke the logjam on education budget bills after a bill against critical race theory became law last week. The measure would punish schools that “compel” students to believe controversial aspects of the theory.

The legislation, House Bill 377, did not define critical race theory. The American Bar Association says critical race theory “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past.” It acknowledges that slavery and other previous policies continue to have a social impact on Black Americans and other people of color.

Senate Minority Caucus Chair Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said the funding cuts punish colleges and universities for perceived problems and hurt their students, who may see tuition rise.

“I understand the political realities that we sometimes have to deal with in this building, but I am opposed to any cuts to our universities and our colleges in a year when the state is flush with money,” Ward-Engelking said.

“I’m not proud of that at all. I don’t want any part of that, and It feels very embarrassing to me.”

Mathias defends critical race theory

Rep. Ron Nate, R- Rexburg, said more than $2.5 million is not enough of a cut. He urged slashing the higher education budget by $18 million. He said several other services should be cut, such as women’s centers, equity and diversity offices and multicultural services.

Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, the only Black state legislator and a Boise State University graduate, grew emotional during debate as he defended critical race theory and social justice. Other state legislators who first brought them up objected to his debate.

Mathias explained that critical race theory is an idea without a clear definition and an acknowledgment that current U.S. social institutions have some bias against people of color. Social justice, he said, is “the pursuit of fairness in the eyes of society.”

He said he has been “saddened by this conversation” in the past few months.

“People of color always come out on the losing end. Always,” Mathias said as his voice cracked. “And I don’t think it’s unfair to acknowledge it.”

Rep. Paul Amador, R- Coeur d’Alene, who sponsored the bill, said all House members are “partially unhappy” with this bill, but that it’s needed to show support for colleges and universities and the students enrolled in those institutions.

Amador said businesses need an educated workforce and are attracted to states that offer a quality education.

“I also think we need to take a step back and focus on what is truly the best outcome for Idaho,” he said.

“Take away the emotions, take away the policy-related fears. Let’s focus on what will help Idaho move forward.”

Amador quoted Lisa Holland, a Kuna city official who died Saturday in a fatal crash south of Mountain Home, whose mantra was to “never stop learning, never stop doing, never stop giving.” He said that was a reminder on how the legislative body should be acting and what he values in higher education.

The House passed the bill 49-20.

Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R- Caldwell, said a “free-market solution” to diversity programming would be to let students decide whether that’s what they want. They can have more influence on university policies than the Legislature can, she said.

“We vote with our feet,” she said.

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R- Genesee, said lawmakers have “beat down the reputation” of higher education institutions that they should be proud of. She said she doesn’t like the budget, and that the proposed cuts keep rising.

“We’re talking about $2.5 million,” Troy said. “For goodness’ sakes, they’ve got the message. They’re not dead. They’re Ph.Ds. Let’s just support this budget and get on with it.”

Republicans, in poll, say funding public schools a top priority

A poll conducted by GS Strategy Group that was publicly released Tuesday showed that Republican voters ranked fully funding Idaho public schools as the top priority for the Idaho Legislature before it ends the session.

Public school funding was closely followed by long-term infrastructure planning and cutting property taxes.

The phone survey – in partnership with the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, Idaho Education Association and Boise Metro Chamber – polled 400 likely Republican primary voters in Idaho between April 29 and May 2. It had a 4.9% margin of error, according to GS Strategy Group.

The majority of Republicans polled said they had a favorable opinion of Idaho teachers.

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