State Board of Education reviews diversity, inclusion policy after lawmaker concerns

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

After the Idaho Legislature’s adoption of a bill to prevent schools from forcing students to believe certain ideologies, the Idaho State Board of Education held a special meeting Monday on the issue.

The Board introduced a policy for diversity, educational equity, and inclusion in higher education. The meeting gave the policy a first reading only, so there will be opportunity for public comment before the next reading in August.

The policy came after HB 377 was signed by Gov. Brad Little on April 28. The new law, deemed the “dignity and nondiscrimination in public education” bill, emerged during the 2021 legislative session fight over funding for higher education in Idaho.

HB 377 requires schools to “respect the dignity of others, acknowledge the right of others to express differing opinions, and foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and freedom of speech and association.” Schools may not force students to personally adhere to any ideology taught.

The bill went into immediate effect upon its passage, which triggered the need for the State Board of Education to review its policy. 

All four higher education institutions in Idaho currently have policies and procedures—as well as specific efforts and activities—for promoting diversity, educational equity, and inclusion, according to the Board.

“This new Board policy will formally require each institution to establish and maintain local policies related to diversity, educational equity, and inclusion, in accordance with the unique Board-approved missions and purposes of each institution,” according to documents from the meeting. “The new policy will also require each institution to develop and maintain local policies that describe and make transparent a process for addressing claims of oppression and unlawful discrimination.”

During the meeting, board member Debbie Critchfield introduced the policy, noting “We do not support indoctrination of any kind at any level,” but want all people to feel respected. 

Some language was taken from the Idaho Human Rights Act, a law that was passed by the Idaho Legislature. The policy also defines the words “diversity,” “educational equity,” and “inclusion.”

“This is a starting place, where when we talk about this as a board of education, this is what we mean,” Critchfield said. “This is what we mean when we talk about protecting these types of things.”

Critchfield said she also wants campuses to be a place where people can have meaningful discussion without fear of any kind of repercussions for having a differing viewpoint.

“This is fulfilling a commitment we made, that we would be stronger in our expectations (of higher education),” she said.

The motion for first reading passed the board unanimously. 

“We really care about protecting freedom of speech and freedom of expression on our college campuses,” said board president Kurt Liebich during the meeting. 

Liebich said he wants to create a climate where students can learn from each other. 

The public can send comments about the proposed policy to board@osbe.idaho.gov.

Some of the legislature’s concerns regarding indoctrination were discussed during Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s last Education Task Force meeting, which focused on K-12 schools and allegations of indoctrination. The task force’s next meeting will address higher education.

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