June 16, 2024

Another Little-McGeachin education showdown is on hold, but not permanently

This week, Idaho political news went national, as the Brad Little-Janice McGeachin feud went nuclear.

It made for irresistible sport, without an obvious winner.

Playing the acting governor card once again, the lieutenant governor played to her base with a short-lived executive order banning schools from requiring COVID-19 vaccines (which they can’t do anyway) and outlawing mandatory COVID-19 testing (which is probably more of a legal quandary). While joining fellow Republican governors along the U.S.-Mexican border, and essentially phoning in to rescind the McGeachin order, Little also took heat for political grandstanding.

But while one showdown played out for all of Idaho (and the nation) to see, another one is on hold.

On Thursday, Little’s State Board of Education said it would delay — again — a proposed policy on campus diversity, educational equity and inclusion, or DEI for short. The proposal won’t come up at the board’s October meeting, and probably won’t come up until 2022.

“Before we continue consideration of a new policy, we are going to conduct a campus climate survey of students later this fall,” State Board President Kurt Liebich said in a statement. “It will be a scientific survey conducted by the Board office and independent of the institutions. We should have results back after the first of the year.”

And as showdowns go, this one is a big deal. It doesn’t have the drama of dueling executive orders and a full-on Twitter feud pitting two statewide elected officials. But hey, you can’t have everything.

But this battle should reinforce Little’s and McGeachin’s positions on opposite sides of the campus culture wars. And it could make Little’s State Board a legitimate election issue in the May GOP gubernatorial primary.

McGeachin and the State Board have been circling each other suspiciously for months.

All summer, a hand-picked McGeachin task force sought evidence of classroom indoctrination, at the K-12 and higher education levels. Liebich has repeatedly, and publicly, disputed the claims of widespread indoctrination.

Meanwhile, in June, the State Board floated its DEI proposal, which would require Idaho’s four-year schools to come up with their own campus-specific programs.

“Diversity, educational equity, and inclusion are necessary components of educational experiences that challenge individuals to grow, improve critical thinking, refine skills, build character, develop awareness, and engage in freedom of thought and expression,’ the proposed policy reads, in part. “The Board affirms that encouraging and supporting diversity, educational equity, and inclusion is central to academic success, to engendering innovation and creativity, and to fully preparing students to thrive in an increasingly diverse and global workforce.”

What has happened since June?

In mid-August, the board delayed a final vote on the DEI proposal, then scheduled for later in the month. At the time, Liebich said the delay was simply an attempt to collect public comment. But the move also averted a political collision course; the Aug. 25 and 26 State Board meeting would have coincided with the fourth and final meeting of the McGeachin education task force, also held Aug. 26.

Meanwhile, dozens of Idahoans have quietly and passionately weighed in.

Idaho Education News filed a public records request for public comments on the State Board proposal: more than 50 in all.

The majority of commenters opposed the proposal. Many of these comments used the loaded words that flowed freely during the four meetings of McGeachin’s education task force — calling the State Board proposal racist, Marxist, socialist, divisive and anti-American.

Not surprisingly, emotions ran high on both sides of this ideological divide, with many of the comments directed at the State Board.

  • “Where is fair access denied to anyone in Idaho education, and where are human rights being violated in Idaho education?” asked Timothy Bond of Meridian. “Leaping to policy before these questions are answered, and prior to allowing people at functional levels to solve such problems, gives the public the strong impression that ideology is the real motivation for this policy proposal by the board.”
  • “I commend (the State Board) and staff for advocating DEI understanding in Idaho schools,” said Larry Gebhardt of Pocatello. “This is not an easy task when Idaho Freedom Foundation receives nearly a million dollars from unnamed conservative donors to oppose DEI initiatives with lobbying, legal and media methods.”
  • “My vote in the primary obviously is more important than ever to construct an education board that actually wants to educate, not conduct social experiments,” said Rebecca Holcomb. “What a pathetic state Brad Little and his choices have led us to.”
  • “We believe the board’s policy to define these terms is an important step in the right direction for diversity, equity and inclusion in Idaho higher education,” said Associated Students of University of Idaho President Kallyn Mai and ASUI Vice President Katie Hettinga. They suggested broadening the definition of diversity to include veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, citizenship and marital status.

While many comments have kept to tidy ideological lines, there still were a few wrinkles.

Push Back Idaho, a new conservative PAC based in Blaine County, challenged the State Board to add language “acknowledging that indoctrination is, itself, a form of oppression and unlawful discrimination.” Yet this same group is one of former State Board member Debbie Critchfield’s biggest supporters, contributing $5,000 to the Little ally, and her campaign for state schools superintendent.

And the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, urged the State Board to reject the proposal, saying its language promoting civility could violate free speech rights. “Much uncivil speech is indeed protected under the First Amendment.” But this out-of-state group is by no means in the McGeachin camp. In August, FIRE spent hundreds of dollars to obtain redacted comments to McGeachin’s task force — the same comments McGeachin released only after a judge ordered her to do so, and after the Idaho Press Club sought to have her held in contempt of court.

But one comment was not at all surprising. In a Sept. 23 letter, the task force doubled down on its summer’s work. Asserting that they have found “overwhelming evidence” of elements of critical race theory on campus, task force members urged the State Board to ditch the proposed policy.

“The use of the word ‘equity’ seeks to guarantee equitable outcomes, which will result in unconstitutional and unlawful discrimination,” the task force said, in a letter first obtained not through the State Board, but from McGeachin Chief of Staff Jordan Watters. (On Thursday, State Board spokesman Mike Keckler acknowledged the oversight, saying he had inadvertently omitted the task force letter from the response to EdNews’ records request.)

The DEI proposal already illustrates a sharp difference between the way Little’s State Board and McGeachin’s inner circle view the campus culture wars. The issue could give the lieutenant governor an avenue to spell out what a McGeachin State Board would look like.

That debate might not go national. But anyone who cares about Idaho higher education should pay attention.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television; and “Idaho Matters” on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Analysis: Another Little-McGeachin education showdown is on hold, but not permanently