When I was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 2018, I requested, and was assigned to the Education committee. Given the challenges facing education, such as endless school bonds and levies, a teacher attrition crisis and childhood illiteracy, I was eager to start working toward the goal of solving these problems.
After three years on the committee, my goal now is to prevent the dismantling of public and higher education. Many of the bills and laws being passed are politicizing education. A high school debate coach would cringe at arguments put forth during committee hearings. Meanwhile, the real problems are being ignored.
Critical thinking is on life support in the House Education committee. Here’s just a small sampling of actions by the majority party, which controls education policy priorities:
One member led a statewide effort to teach children how to burn masks at public rallies while Idahoans were dying from a pandemic. This committee member is helping rewrite Idaho’s science standards.
One member claimed we do not have co-equal branches of government, asserting that the legislature is most important because “there are more people in it.” This member wants to rewrite standards, which includes teaching government and civics.
One member suggested that students with social emotional learning problems should be “taken behind the woodshed.”
One member justified their opposition to Idaho’s education standards because their grandchild lost interest in science.
One member sponsored a bill that takes money away from public schools if they didn’t keep classrooms open during a future pandemic, even if the mortality rate was 50%. The committee approved it.
One member sponsored a bill that would take 90% of the education budget and convert it into vouchers used to pay for private and religious school tuition. The committee approved it.
One member introduced a bill that would allow anyone above the age of 18 with only a bachelor’s degree in any non-education field to teach your children. The committee approved it.
One member sponsored a bill that reduced the educational qualifications of a charter school administrator to be less than that of the teachers they hire. The committee approved it.
A Republican Party official running for governor was permitted to film himself introducing a bill he wrote that would allow teachers to be sued and take money away from schools if topics he didn’t like were discussed in any classroom. The committee approved this bill and the act of political theater surrounding it.
Perhaps most disturbing was observing a group of majority party committee members repeatedly meet with an organization that virulently opposes public education. These meetings were held in a conference room inside my office suite. This same organization attacked a committee member who didn’t fall in line. The result: the committee voted to abolish every K-12 education standard in Idaho and replace them with . . . nothing. The committee member under attack lost his primary election two months later.
How do we restore critical thinking when setting education policy in Idaho? It starts with electing legislators who reject extremism and the politicizing of education. Voters must dismiss the manufactured fear and misinformation being used to control their child’s education — and reject candidates who embrace these tactics. One place to start is by watching for extremist rhetoric, the bills candidates support, and how they vote.
In the end, the vote that matters most is yours. Next November, vote for the person, not just a letter in the alphabet or a color in the rainbow. Your child’s education — and the state’s future — is at stake.
Steve Berch is a state representative and Democrat representing Boise.