Over the course of 24 hours, lawmakers swiftly introduced and passed a new “nondiscrimination” bill in two committees and on the House floor Thursday, but not without a four-hour marathon of debates that dominated the Legislature’s agenda.

The bill, House Bill 377, is the latest iteration in a string of proposals aimed at ousting progressive-slanted educational practices from Idaho schools. It would ban school spending that in some way forces students to “adhere to” teachings it attributes to critical race theory — including that one race or sex is superior; that individuals should be treated adversely based on identity characteristics like race or sex; or that an individual is responsible for actions committed by members of their race or identity group in the past. Testifiers familiar with critical race theory noted that critical race theorists reject those teachings.

But bill sponsors pointed out their proposal doesn’t hinge on the term, heavily debated this legislative session. HB 377 would simply bar schools from forcing students to adopt discriminatory beliefs, supporters say, not shut down debate programs or education about race’s role in U.S. history, as critics fear.

“This bill does not prohibit teaching about white supremacy, sexism, racism, communism or any other ism. In fact, the good the bad and the ugly are all on the table to be taught,” said sponsor Rep. Wendy Horman, R- Idaho Falls, in a prepared speech she delivered to the House and House Education Committee.

After over an hour of testimony that ranged from a college professor criticizing Statehouse understandings of critical race theory to the Idaho Freedom Foundation calling for a sharper rebuke of the intellectual movement, House Education Republicans passed the bill on a party-line vote. Less than an hour later, the bill sparked another extensive debate, before the House passed the bill on party lines, 57-12.

The day was filled with partisan disagreements and legislators presenting evidence of left-leaning curricula. And the arguments about critical race theory’s presence — or lack thereof — in public schools that killed three major education budgets this session all came flooding back.

“Every student is entitled to a position-neutral education”

Outgoing Idaho State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield told House Education that over the last seven years, she has not received a formal complaint similar to those lawmakers use as evidence of social justice-oriented education. When looking into stories the board has heard about social justice teachings, she has hit a “dead end,” she said.

She acknowledged, though, that school districts and universities could have managed complaints over that stretch through existing channels.

She said the State Board did not support or oppose the bill, but did say, “Every student is entitled to a position-neutral education. This means that students are free to develop their own opinions and ideas without bias or prejudice from an instructor, a course material or even a system.”

Republicans spent the morning split on whether the content they oppose is already “creeping into” schools, or whether the bill is a preemptive measure. Others, like Horman, say it’s both a response to concerns about recent complaints and a preemptive strike against Biden administration orders on race and education that have drawn the ire of conservative publications such as the National Review.

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, pointed to a Biden executive order that, she said, “advances racial equity and supports underserved communities through the federal government.” The order makes no reference to changes in curriculum or the idea of critical race theory, but Moon concluded, “So the Biden administration does intend to implement critical race theory into our public schools through federal grants.”

Moon also quoted a federal rule as evidence for her fears, in which the administration commits to equity in education and culturally relevant teaching programs. It remains unclear how either document would conflict with HB 377, which legislators say is designed to prevent teachers from forcing students to adopt certain ideas.

But others placed more emphasis on problems they think exist now.

“I do disagree with” Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, “who said we’re being proactive with this bill,” said Blanchard Republican Heather Scott.

“This bill needed to be passed years ago. This has been creeping through our schools forever,” Scott said.

A microcosm of the Statehouse social justice debate

In recent years, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hardline libertarian group, has stoked concerns over social justice in education and has condemned diversity and inclusion programs, particularly at Boise State University. Anna Miller, who works for the group, called the bill “a sufficient starting point,” but said it doesn’t go far enough in prohibiting “activism of such ideas” as critical race theory.

“We know critical race theory has already infiltrated many of our public schools and universities,” Miller said.

The Idaho Association of School Administrators, Idaho Business for Education, the Idaho Education Association and the Idaho School Boards Association came out against the bill in a joint statement Thursday, making an apparent reference to the foundation’s goals.

HB 377’s “attempts at restricting the ability for our public education institutions to be able to deliver services to all of our students comes solely based on a wildfire of misinformation pedaled by a group who has openly advocated to denigrate Idahoans’ views and the overall integrity of public education,” the organizations wrote.

Idaho Education News asked the foundation for some examples of critical race theory or social justice instruction in Idaho school districts last week, but Vice President Dustin Hurst declined to comment.

Others contend critical race theory itself doesn’t clash with the “nondiscrimination” the new bill purports to seek. Christopher Lueker-Ritter said over his time in academia, first attending the University of Idaho and later teaching college students as a professor, he’s studied and taught critical race theory.

“Earlier, Representative Young listed a lot of stories about what critical race theory looks like,” said Lueker-Ritter, referring to Blackfoot Rep. Julianne Young’s earlier claim that critical race theory ‘pits’ oppressor against oppressed and ‘teaches kids to hate each other and to hate their country.’

“Maybe that’s what it looks like from the viewpoint of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. That’s not what it is,” Lueker-Ritter continued. “Critical race theory is a lens through which to critique, to question with reason and logic, the ways that racial inequality are built into systems of law, finance, education and so forth. It’s explicitly anti-racist. More specifically, anti-white supremacist, so unless you’re a white supremacist, you have nothing to fear from critical race theory.”

College students and representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union joined in testifying against the bill in committee, worrying the new regulations would cause teachers and professors to avoid important topics for fear of being defunded. But when it came up for debate on the House floor, legislators continued passionately disavowing the ideas the bill chides.

After an hour of back and forth about how the bill intersects with racism and anti-racism in U.S. education, Rep. Ben Adams, R-Nampa, said, “I’ve lived in a lot of places around the world, and America is still the least racist place I’ve ever been.”

‘A path home’

Passing HB 377 could be the linchpin to passing Idaho school budgets, which the Legislature must do before it adjourns.

The House has already shot down the largest K-12 funding bill and a bill carving out money for higher education. Those bills fell amid social justice concerns, and in the case of the K-12 bill, a teacher salary budget, conservatives asked that “intent language” be added to the budget prohibiting the teachings they oppose.

Some hope HB 377 could assuage those concerns and break the legislative logjam, bringing an end to a historically long session that costs taxpayers more each day.

A false start in JFAC

Leaving $1.4 billion in education budgets in continued limbo, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee called an audible.

JFAC returned to work Thursday after a one-week hiatus — and with an ambitious agenda. The 11 agenda items included the $1.1 billion teacher salaries budget and a higher education budget earmarking $315 million in taxpayer dollars. The House killed both of these budgets earlier in April, with conservatives airing social justice concerns that they hope HB 377 will address.

Thursday looked like the day for JFAC to rewrite the education budgets, but the committee never got there. First, the committee moved slowly, spending nearly an hour on health and welfare programs, including two ARPA line items. After that — and with the teacher salaries budget sitting next on the agenda — JFAC abruptly went at ease shortly before 9 a.m.

This break coincided with Thursday morning’s House Education hearing on HB 377.

When JFAC returned to work nearly a half hour later, co-chair Sen. Steve Bair announced that the committee would skip over education budgets for the day. Bair explained that Sen. Carl Crabtree and Horman — two JFAC members who play a leading role in writing education budgets — were still in House Education presenting HB 377, which they are co-sponsoring.

JFAC will meet again “as soon as we get some things squared away,” Bair, R-Blackfoot, said at the end of Thursday’s meeting. No date is set.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report. Idaho Education News covered Thursday’s hearings remotely.