In Idaho, a new law is shifting the dynamics of school curriculum selection, handing significant power to parents and community members. The Guardian reports on the unfolding situation, detailing how this law is causing both collaboration and conflict between parents and educators. Is this law fostering partnership or sowing division?
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- A new Idaho law mandates that at least 50% of committees selecting school curricula must be non-educators, including parents, significantly shifting the dynamics of curriculum selection.
- In some Idaho districts, the law has encouraged dialogue between parents and educators. In others, it has deepened divisions and sparked heated disputes.
- Idaho’s law is part of a broader trend across the US, with 147 “parental rights” bills introduced in state legislatures over the past two years.
- Critics view the law as a political move that risks further politicizing education and undermining professional educators.
Last year, JD Davis, the English department chair at a high school in Twin Falls, Idaho, was informed that half of his committee for selecting new educational materials would comprise parents and community members. Davis, who also teaches journalism and leads the school newspaper, didn’t welcome the changes:
“I’m not going to have parents involved! They don’t know what we’re doing. They don’t know what we need in a textbook.”
Yet it was not a suggestion but a legal requirement. A new Idaho law, known as the District Curricular Adoption Committees law, mandated this change. It requires that committees tasked with reviewing and recommending new texts and materials for school districts must consist of at least 50% non-educators, including parents of current students.
While a few states have passed a handful of laws that enhance parental rights in education, Idaho’s bill stands out. Enacted in July 2022 by the state’s conservative legislature—which also passed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bans—this law goes beyond allowing parents to review educational materials. It empowers them to participate in the selection of school curricula actively. This shift has been viewed by some educators, like Peggy Hoy, an instructional coach in the Twin Falls district and the Idaho director for the National Education Association, as a political move designed to undermine their professional role and potentially divide educators and parents. Hoy says,
“The problem is when you make a rule like they did and there is this requirement, it feels as an educator that the underlying reason is to drive a wedge between the classroom and parents.”
Similarly, Sally Toone, a recently retired state representative and veteran teacher, perceives the law as a legislative strategy by conservatives to position parents as drivers rather than partners in the educational process.
The Twin Falls Experience
During the review process in Twin Falls, which serves a student body of 9,300 in southern Idaho, certain curriculum themes became points of contention. Parents raised objections to issues centered around peaceful protests, framing questions related to the climate crisis, and lessons incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL). Davis, the English teacher spearheading the committee, mentioned that the curriculum featuring SEL was swiftly dismissed. It’s worth noting that SEL, which encompasses tools and strategies proven by research to aid students in better understanding academic content, has recently been thrust into the spotlight. Across the U.S., far-right groups have conflated SEL with the much-debated critical race theory (CRT).
In some districts, this law has brought parents and teachers into closer alignment. According to The Guardian, educators and parents in Twin Falls have reported that the conversations spurred by this law have forced them to consider one another’s concerns and perspectives. Chris Reid, a local banker, vice-mayor of Twin Falls, and father of seven, expressed his eagerness to ensure that the new English language arts curriculum was “age-appropriate” and aligned with his family’s values.
“My family and I are very religious. My biggest concern as a father was: what are my children going to be reading?”
Despite some tense conversations, Davis, the teacher leading the committee, found the process “not threatening” and was satisfied with the curriculum choice of the myPerspectives textbooks by Savvas Learning Company.
A Divide and New Approaches in West Bonner County
In stark contrast to the dialogue and collaboration seen in Twin Falls, the West Bonner County School District in rural north Idaho has become a battleground over curriculum choices, illustrating the potential for deep divisions that the new law can exacerbate.
In West Bonner County, a district serving about 1,000 students, the curriculum review process was already contentious before the new law took effect. In June of last year, the curriculum review committee, which included a few parents, chose the Wonders English language arts curriculum from publisher McGraw-Hill. The school board approved it quickly and unanimously; the materials were purchased and delivered.
However, the situation took a dramatic turn when local conservative activists raised objections, arguing that the materials contained components of social-emotional learning (SEL). According to the publisher’s website, McGraw-Hill partnered with Sesame Workshop to include SEL skills focused on “self-confidence, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior.” Activists claimed that this was a step too far, and in a heated meeting on August 24, 2022, the school board voted 3-1 to rescind the curriculum.
This decision had immediate and tangible consequences. Because the existing curriculum was out of print, the district had no formal reading program for the entire school year. Whitney Urmann, a fourth-grade teacher at West Bonner County School District’s Priest Lake Elementary School, described the dire situation to The Guardian.
“We had no spelling lists, no word work. The first unit was on the desert and we live in north Idaho.”
She was left with two workbooks for her entire class and a few books leveled to her students’ abilities. Other materials were incomplete or irrelevant, she said. From mid-October on, she said, she bought materials herself, spending $2,000 of her $47,000 salary to be able to teach reading.
The fallout from the board’s decision extended beyond the classroom. Margaret Hall, the board member who cast the dissenting vote, told The Guardian that the decision “has created some ill feelings.” Indeed, two board members who voted to rescind the curriculum now face a recall after parents gathered enough signatures on petitions to force a vote. Shouting at one school board meeting in June went on for nearly four hours, highlighting these debates’ emotional and contentious nature.
Adding to the tension, the school board, on a 3-2 vote, chose Branden Durst – previously a senior analyst at the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation and had no educational experience – as the district’s new superintendent. Durst told The Guardian that he wanted the job because of the district’s challenges, including around curriculum.
“I have a lot of ideas that are frankly unorthodox in education. I needed to prove to myself that those things are right.”
Durst is currently assembling a new committee with plans to quickly adopt a new English language arts curriculum but declined to share details.
In the midst of this turmoil, some local parents are making drastic decisions. Whitney Hutchins, a lifelong resident of the district and a worker at the Priest Lake resort her family has owned and operated for generations, recently decided with her husband to move across the state line to Spokane, Washington. “This is not the environment I want to raise my child in,” Hutchins, mother of an 18-month-old, told The Guardian. She views the curriculum law as part of a larger problem of extremists gaining control and undermining civic institutions.
As the West Bonner County School District grapples with these issues, it stands as a stark example of how the new law, designed to empower parents, can fuel deep and bitter divisions within a community.
The Future of Education in Idaho
As debates continue, the question remains: is this law a step towards more inclusive and community-oriented education, or is it a recipe for ongoing conflict and politicization of school curricula? Jessica Rogers, who served on the committee that picked the Wonders curriculum in West Bonner county, told The Guardian that she saw hints of trouble long before the vote to reject the curriculum, anticipating political attacks over images that showed racial diversity.
With educators, parents, and politicians all deeply invested in the outcome, the impact of Idaho’s District Curricular Adoption Committees law will be closely watched within the state and across a nation grappling with similar issues.
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