Education task force presenters criticize K-12 curriculum, textbooks

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

The Education Task Force assembled by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin met again Thursday at the statehouse to discuss education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. 

Presenters focused on whether critical race theory, racism, capitalism, Black Lives Matter and issues around transgender people are being taught in Idaho public schools. They looked at various assignments, textbooks and materials used to teach. 

The Idaho State Board of Education was invited to attend the meeting but declined to attend, instead providing written materials, Rep. Priscilla Giddings said. 

The Idaho School Board Association’s President-elect Jason Knopp attended the first meeting in May but resigned as a task force member the next day.

Several Idahoans spoke after co-chair Giddings, R-White Bird, made introductory remarks. Giddings has announced her intent to run for lieutenant governor in 2022, and McGeachin plans to run for governor.

All of the speakers who gave community feedback to the task force offered examples of what they thought were inappropriate assignments or textbooks. 

At one point there were sparks between speakers and about eight audience members, who were wearing T-shirts that said “Hands off our schools.” McGeachin initially asked them to move out of view of the Idaho In Session camera.

One audience member shouted that it was unfair because all of the meeting’s speakers supported the task force, so they were expressing themselves.

Other T-shirts in the audience read “Black conservatives matter,” “Truth be told” and “Racist idiot parade.”

McGeachin ultimately let them stay in their seats, in view of the camera. 

Idaho In Session cameras do not deliberately include or exclude anything around or behind the person speaking; they follow the person who is speaking.

Idaho In Session and Idaho Reports are both part of Idaho Public Television but operate separately from one another.

Several speakers expressed concerns about the use of the terms “equity” versus “equality.” 

One community member asked to provide feedback was Mark Hodges, who claimed Meridian’s Compass Public Charter School teaches discriminatory content. 

Hodges, a white man, said he grew up in Hawaii and experienced years of vicious racism by dark-skinned people. 

“It’s not limited to white people being racist and it’s not limited to non-white people experiencing racism,” Hodges 

Hodges argued that people of some races have genuine resentment and anger and it’s not prejudice.

“If I’m walking down the beach at 5 in the afternoon and I see a group of non-whites drinking beer at the pavilion, I know what’s coming next, so I turn around and walk the other way,” Hodges said. “Is that prejudice? Technically, yes. But is it necessary? Yes, it’s how I survived.” 

Hodges was specifically upset about an assignment that asked students to look at photographs and write down their emotional reactions. It included people who were disabled, people with dark complexions, homeless people, poor people, immigrants and more.

“All persons are deserving of compassion and sympathy, and to be treated with humanity, correct?” Hodges said. “Who is missing from this list? People like me. An average white guy. Am I not deserving of compassion?”

The students were asked to talk about their reactions to these people, he said. 

Another person asked to speak, Deb Belisle, alleged that too many teachers were “leftist” and expressed their political opinions to students.

Among other things, Belisle claimed “leftists” support pedophilia, and teach “good is bad, bad is good, truth is lie, and lie is truth.” 

She claims teachers have no right to impose their beliefs on students and racist teachers should be fired. 

“These people hate our country and these people are teaching our kids,” Belisle said.

Another woman read a statement on behalf of an “anonymous parent” who did not want to speak publicly at the meeting.

Others expressed concern about how textbooks used in Idaho describe democracy and capitalism, how they define political parties, or information that is not included in textbooks that they believe should be taught.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s office said she did send the task force information on how curricular materials are reviewed and developed.

Superintendent of Public Instruction

Ybarra was asked to present at the meeting but the meeting fell during Ybarra’s planned vacation, according to Idaho Department of Education public information officer Kris Rodine. 

“The superintendent communicated in a phone call with the Lieutenant Governor and Rep. Giddings on June 10, as well as in a follow up email, that she would not be able to attend because she is on vacation this week,” Rodine said in an email to Idaho Reports.

Branden Durst, a Republican candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, spoke to the task force in the afternoon. He is a former Idaho state representative and senator but resigned from the Senate in 2013 after it was discovered he was splitting his time between Idaho and Washington. Legislators must be full-time residents of their district. 

The agenda posted by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office called Durst a “possible future Superintendent of Instruction.”

Durst walked the task force through Idaho code around current curriculum. He also alleged that Idaho taxpayer funds were used to pay for a membership to WIDA Consortium, which Durst alleges teaches critical race theory. That was not confirmed on Thursday.

Task force members questioned Durst about his plans and opinions on public schools, veering into territory that began to sound like an open campaign for his run for superintendent. 

Debbie Critchfield, a member of the Idaho State Board of Education, is also running for the Superintendent of Public Instruction seat.

Task force member Sonya Harris, a member of the Blackfoot School Board said her goal was to make sure education “reflects the values of the community that supports them.”

Textbooks don’t come with a label that says “critical race theory,” according to Harris. She implied that it’s embedded in the books, but did not elaborate. She suggested that teachers should not be required to take discrimination training and stressed that parents should talk to their local school boards and attend meetings. 

“You have every right to get involved and let your voice be heard,” Harris said. 

Idaho State Board of Education response

The task force voted at the end of the meeting to again invite the Idaho State Board of Education to attend the next meeting.

Board President Kurt Liebich issued a statement about the task force Thursday afternoon. 

“On June 8, the Board’s Executive Director, Matt Freeman and I, participated in a phone call with the Lt. Governor and Representative Priscilla Giddings, during which we were asked to make a presentation and answer questions at the June 24th task force meeting,” Liebich said in the statement. “I was noncommittal, expressing my concern about statements made by some task force members during the first meeting and its overall tone. Last week, on June 16th, we informed Rep. Giddings and the Lt. Governor that we would instead provide written responses to their questions, rather than appear in person.”

“The State Board is focused on helping our schools and students rebound from the global pandemic. Literacy, unfinished learning, student achievement and student mental health are key areas the Board is actively working to address. As a state and a society, we cannot allow the impact of the pandemic to create a lost generation of students. We remain focused on understanding the achievement gaps and working on developing accelerated learning strategies to ensure all students are receiving a uniform and thorough education.”

Liebich said the board will continue to follow the task force.

“To date, I have not seen any evidence of indoctrination in our public education system. As a State Board, we have confidence in our local school boards and communities to address any issues should they arise,” Liebich said.

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