Don’t just take our word for it. The Idaho Statesman also used that phrase in their editorial of April 8, 2021. And that was before legislators returned from a mid-session COVID-19 recess necessitated by the refusal of many in the capitol to follow safety protocols. Before they held education budgets hostage in order to pass HB 377, which was built on innuendo and threatens the academic freedom of professional educators. Before a legislator faced an ethics hearing on sexual assault charges. Before another legislator publicly named and ridiculed the alleged victim. All of that was piled on top of a session that was already long on political grandstanding and short on consideration of any legislation that would support students, educators, and public schools that were already reeling from the pandemic. You won’t find much in the way of highlights, but here is a rundown on some of the most noteworthy developments from Idaho’s worst legislative session ever.
- The legislature passed a massive tax cut that will primarily benefit the most affluent Idahoans and will provide very little to help working families. The state was sitting on $600 million budget surplus but opted against using it to make a significant investment in public education. This action was juxtaposed against a new report showing that Idaho remains last in the nation in per student funding.
- Education budgets were killed in the House over the false narrative that Idaho educators are “indoctrinating” students in socialism and critical race theory. The legislature passed HB 377, an unnecessary bill that threatens the academic freedom of professional educators. Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin has also formed a task force to “find these insidious theories and philosophies are lurking and excise them from our education system”.
- The legislature considered a bill that would have provided state funding to create more optional full-day Kindergarten opportunities around the state. Ultimately, this common sense legislation failed to move forward.
- The Idaho House rejected nearly $6 million in federal grant money designed to expand local pre-K programs around the state. This is pass-through money that would not have impacted the state budget and that would have helped many Idaho children with school readiness.
- HB 067 removed authority from local health districts to close K-12 schools in order to provide safe working and learning environments.
Thanks to the efforts of IEA members, education stakeholders, and supporters of public education, several onerous bills were defeated in the Senate.
- The latest attempt to divert funding away from public schools, a private school voucher bill passed the House but was killed by the Senate Education Committee.
- A bill that would have made bargaining with local education associations optional for school districts failed in the Senate Education Committee. IEA President Layne McInelly called this bill “unnecessary legislation that would have stifled the voices of educators and reduced the vital collaboration between district officials and educators”.
- Legislation that would have allowed school districts to locally certify anyone 18 years old and holding a bachelor’s degree was also killed by the Senate Education Committee. Many IEA members testified or contacted lawmakers opposing the legislature’s latest shortcut approach to solving a systemic problem in recruiting and retaining educators.
The 2021 session was the longest and most expensive legislation in state history. Just in their return from the COVID-19 recess the legislature racked up more than $400,000 in expenses that come out of the pockets of taxpayers. The sordid case of Aaron von Ehlinger’s sexual assault hearing and Rep. Priscilla Giddings publicly naming the alleged victim and not being held accountable for doing so created further embarrassment for Idaho.
The session was marked by extremism and misplaced priorities, with considerable time wasted on political posturing and fringe issues rather than dealing with real problems facing the state and individual Idahoans. Many legislators used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for power grabs, taking aim on the rights and autonomy of educators, health officials, the governor, and the citizens of the state. The failure of the legislature to support public education was the most egregious result from an unproductive and divisive session.
The House doubled down on their manic approaching to governing by refusing to adjourn, instead voting to recess, leaving the door open to a return at any time this year. The Senate took the prudent step on adjourning sine die. The conflicting actions led to a less-than-clear report from the Attorney General’s office, so the chaos and confusion of the session held form. We can only hope that the 2021 session marks rock bottom for the Idaho legislature, and that rational behavior and looking out for the interests of people, not politics, will be the modus operandi for the future.