Boise State University students gathered on Saturday afternoon in front of the Administration Building to express opposition to recent bills in the Idaho Legislature that have targeted state education curricula and funding.
The rally of about 20 people was organized by students angered by passage of House Bill 377, a law signed by Idaho Gov. Brad Little on April 28 that is part of an effort by legislators to limit the teaching of social justice and “critical race theory” in Idaho classrooms and lecture halls.
Critical race theory, which dates to the 1980s, began as a movement among legal scholars to examine the presence of racial bias in law. The theory, which has spread to other academic fields, received widespread attention last year when former President Donald Trump moved to stop federal agencies from conducting anti-bias trainings that employ the theory.
So far this year, Republicans in the Legislature have killed bills funding Idaho’s schools and universities, in part because of claimed “indoctrination” of students.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a libertarian activist group, has lobbied the Legislature to stop funding “social justice programs” on college campuses, according to its website.
“The word indoctrination has been thrown around on this too much,” Angel Venegas, a sophomore at Boise State and one of the speakers at Saturday’s event, told the Statesman. BSU isn’t “saying a group is less than another group, they’re just saying the university has to treat everyone equally. As a minority, that makes me feel welcome.”
On April 27, the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved two education bills that now are headed for floor votes in both houses. The first would allocate $1.1 billion for teacher salaries, while the second comes to $313.1 million in general fund tax dollars for Idaho’s university campuses, which cuts $2.5 million from the budget Gov. Little originally asked for, according to Idaho Education News.
Students on Saturday worried that HB 377, as well as the anticipated cuts to education funding, may curtail students’ ability to learn about a broad range of ideas.
“Being from a really small town where things are more conservative, it was really important for me to come to Boise State and see different perspectives and to learn about things like critical race theory,” Julianne Gee, a senior at BSU, told the Statesman.
“I don’t think (these ideas) have ever affected my political beliefs but I have a much broader understanding of the world and how it works and more empathy for different people.”
‘Meaningful conversations’ with lawmakers lacking
The events organizers put together three presentations: one on K-12 education, a second on higher education and a third on the history of white supremacy in Idaho.
Representatives of the Associated Students of Boise State, the student government, attended the event and junior D. Graf Kirk, the vice president of academic affairs for ASBSU, was one of the speakers. He told audience members about the difficulty communicating with state legislators.
“We aren’t seeing meaningful conversations happening with students,” Kirk said. He has met with lawmakers to discuss education funding, and was preparing to testify at the Statehouse about HB 377 on April 26 before the hearing was cut short.
“It’s up to us to communicate what we actually think about (these bills),” Kirk said.
Caitlin Vasko, a freshman at BSU and another event organizer, told the Statesman she feels the Legislature’s efforts are attempts to curtail academic freedom.
“There aren’t enough conversations around civil rights and social justice in Idaho schools, and this idea that they’re somehow indoctrinating Idaho students is a baseless claim,” she said.
Is free expression at stake?
Mike Satz, the director of a recently-formed political advocacy group called the Idaho 97 Project, said in a speech on Saturday that the Legislature’s efforts could have a “chilling effect” on the free expression of students and professors in Idaho.
“This is a strong group of folks trying to damage public education,” Satz said.
In March, BSU suspended diversity courses for around 1,300 students after an allegation that at least one student had been “degraded” for their beliefs, according to the university, only to resume the courses a week later.
On Saturday, Venegas spoke about the importance he sees in learning from past injustice in American history.
“We’re not responsible for the past, but it’s important to learn about the path we’ve had. … If a state does not learn from its history, it will be condemned to repeat it,” he said.