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State Board of Education Plays Ball With Lawmakers, Will Review Policies Around Academic Freedom

Incoming SBOE President Kurt Liebich speaks to media as outgoing President Debbie Critchfield looks on.
IPTV/Idaho In Session
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Incoming SBOE President Kurt Liebich and outgoing President Debbie Critchfield spoke with media via video conference THursday, April 22, 2021.

The Idaho State Board of Education will investigate whether its current policies on academic freedom and responsibility for faculty and students at the state's public universities. The board announced the plan Thursday, on the heels of the Idaho legislature advancing recently introduced House Bill 377 on a party-line vote.

Outgoing State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield said the board is committed to providing every student with a position-neutral education. She has discussed the legislation with lawmakers concerned that existing, decades-old policies on subjective content in classrooms did not have enough teeth.

“We don’t disagree on what it’s trying to accomplish," Critchfield said Thursday. "We wanted to ensure that there weren’t unintended consequences or unnecessary ripple effects that
would damage what we all believe to be important; that’s protecting the speech."

Incoming President Kurt Liebich, elevated to the position during Thursday's meeting, proposed the board's policy review according to a press release. Liebich said he had seen no evidence of systemic introduction of content lawmakers are concerned about: social justice, critical race theory or other progressive-minded ideas. He said lawmakers' casual use of the word indoctrination undermines confidence in the educational system.

"School boards across the state have policies in place to address issues when they arise," Liebich told media Thursday. "Our institutions have policies and procedures too, but I don’t want to discount some of the concerns either.”

He expects board staff to be involved in any task force, like the one proposed by Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, to find evidence of "indoctrination" within schools.

“I just have a hard time believing, based on my confidence in the local school boards, that we’re going to find that,” he said.

Lawmakers have shared during debate anecdotal stories of teachers and students being ostracized or uncomfortable when some classroom material discussed race or other hot-button social issues. Critchfield, who served as board president for two years and has two additional years on her current term as a board member, said for the first time this week, she heard a firsthand account of someone who felt forced to believe certain ideas in the classroom. Critchfield said Liebich and board member Andrew Scoggin also heard that experience.

"We committed, the three of us," Critchfield said, "to understand how that's happening, what we need to do, what conversations we need to have with our presidents - so that our students don't feel that type of pressure on their campuses."

Liebich says if education is done well, there should be tension and discomfort within debate, but that the board will prioritize freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The State Board of Education has not publicly taken sides on legislation this session aimed at curbing content in schools. "We were consistent in that we didn't weigh in on on many of these things and the reason for that, we felt that it was appropriate for the legislature to have those debates," Critchfield said. "We were at the table."

Lawmakers have so far refused to approve, as required each session by Idaho law, public education budgets because of these concerns over subjective content.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

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