Magic Valley residents say law against critical race theory is ‘intimidating’ public discourse
More than 200 people came to the First Presbyterian Church in Twin Falls last week to hear former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones give an hour-long overview of critical race theory, an academic framework that’s been catapulted into the political center stage.
“It’s basically this,” Jones said, “that racism, particularly our heritage of slavery, has had an influence on the structure of a lot of our laws, and a lot of our practices.”
He also explained how critical race theory went from a concept few outside of graduate-level education circles had heard of to a “culture war weapon of choice” among Republicans.
In Idaho, fears that universities were teaching critical race theory are part of what led to a $1.5 million budget cut for Boise State University and a bill that would withhold funding from public schools if they forced students to believe certain ideas, including some concepts overlapping with critical race theory. That’s despite a lack of evidence it was being taught in K-12 schools.
In a recent column, Jones called that 2021 law, HB 377, a “zombie law,” for the effects it’s had on educators.
“There are a lot of discussions amongst educators across the state that have filtered back to me where people are really concerned about what they can say,” he said in an interview.
It also affects the institutions, as his talk, held at a church, was originally meant to be at the College of Southern Idaho, he said.
Ron James and Melody Lenkner sit on the volunteer committee for the Herrett Center for Arts and Science, a nonprofit museum on the College of Southern Idaho’s campus.
The committee chooses speakers for free, monthly community talks called the Herrett Forum Lectures. For this fall’s series, the group thought one should be about critical race theory.
“It was proposed to include a presentation by an established, non-aligned, non-partisan authority figure,” said James, who spent nearly 30 years teaching geography, history and English in Twin Falls public schools.
He said he had never heard of the concept before it was popularized a few years ago.
“Let's talk about critical race theory and try to get some accurate information out to the public,” he said.
The group landed on Jones, but James and Lenkner said the idea was floated by the College of Southern Idaho administration, and that they were told the college didn’t want to put it on.
College officials said it happened differently. Chris Bragg, Dean of Institutional Effectiveness, said the group was told the talk could happen, but because the topic is controversial, it needed to be a panel with more than one voice for a college-sponsored event.
“If you're going to only bring a single speaker in to talk about critical race theory, then you would need to go ahead and rent space just like any other group,” Bragg said administrators relayed at the time.
James said he doesn’t remember a panel being suggested. Still, he doesn’t blame the college for being cautious.
“This is simply the atmosphere or the environment that House Bill 377 is imposing on administrators and educators,” he said. “It's intimidating.”
James and Lenkner also didn’t want CSI to risk losing funding, but they felt strongly that making the talk available for free was a public service.
“And so, finally, we just said, ‘Well, we'll put it on ourselves,’” Lenkner said.
After a few more local organizations declined, the First Presbyterian Church agreed to provide the space. They needed to list an organization as the sponsor, so James and Lenkner created the Magic Valley Knowledge Seekers, and more community members joined to help them.
Jones thinks as schools and teachers feel the “chilling effects” of laws like the one banning critical race theory, independent groups like the Magic Valley Knowledge Seekers fill an important role.
Editor's note: Chris Bragg, Dean of Institutional Effectiveness and Communication, sits on Boise State Public Radio's Community Advisory Board.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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