Dave Finkelnburg

Dave Finkelnburg

There’s a remarkable division in our Legislature. The split is crystal clear here in the southeast corner of Idaho as ultra-conservative lawmakers attack the priorities of Gov. Brad Little.

Back on March 2, an apparently innocuous bill came to the Idaho House. It would let the State Board of Education (SBOE) spend a federal grant supporting educating Idaho’s youngest children. What had been expected to be a quick vote instead turned into a heated two-hour debate. The eight southeastern Idaho representatives split right down the middle on the issue.

Reps. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, and Chad Christensen, R-Iona, voted against the bill. Voting for it were Reps. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, David Cannon, R-Blackfoot, Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, and James Ruchti, D-Pocatello.

On Jan. 5, the Trump administration had awarded a nearly $6 million grant to Idaho. The money was to fund education of children ages 5 and younger. The goal — to improve school readiness with a focus on early literacy — is highly worthwhile. The SBOE had been working with the nonprofit Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (IDAEYC) for about three years on the project.

An investigation last year led by IDAEYC — called a needs assessment and funded by a smaller, direct federal grant to the group — had found that half of Idaho lacks adequate access to child care.

The study identified programs including children’s library sessions, kindergarten readiness, support for homeschooling families, help to parents to find child care, and classes teaching adults about early literacy that would help with the goal of teaching young Idahoans to read and write at an earlier age.

U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both urged support for this bill. So did the very conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So did the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI). Gov. Brad Little has long been a strong supporter of early childhood education. Since he became governor, he has made early literacy one of his major priorities for education. So how did the wheels come off a supposedly laudable plan? Since the bill’s purpose is pretty hard to argue against, Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-Riggins, launched the assault by attacking the nonprofit that would help the SBOE.

“Are you aware if this nonprofit has provided any support or if they would encourage or support the teaching of the pledge of allegiance?” she asked the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, according to the Idaho Falls Post Register. Giddings didn’t explain why or how having 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds memorize the pledge would make them better able to read and write at a younger age.

Amador couldn’t know the answer, since the organization doesn’t determine curriculum for Idaho classes. The Department of Education and local school districts do that.

A federal grant meant the state wouldn’t control what was taught, Giddings claimed. Nonprofit involvement meant there would be no way to know how the money was spent, she added.

Not so, said Amador. However, he hadn’t been the one working on the grant for more than a year and he wasn’t sufficiently persuasive.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, called the legislation a bald-faced attempt to indoctrinate young kids about bias. She provided no evidence to support the assertion.

Giddings closed in for the kill. She claimed she had found online that the National Alliance for the Education of Young Children supports a “social justice curriculum.” Actually, the organization, which receives no money from its Idaho namesake, has books about how to teach young learners.

IDAEYC provides certification, standards and training for Idaho child care providers. Nowhere in the state does it teach children. The nonprofit has and continues to advocate for programs that give the youngest learners a helping hand wherever possible.

Giddings won. The House voted 37-35 to kill the spending approval.

Since then, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has rolled the grant into the appropriation for the SBOE. It will pass this time around as part of a larger measure.

In the meantime, advocates for the grant remain diplomatic about the debacle. “Things were said that were not true” is the strongest criticism they have levied publicly.

I’ll be more direct. Legislators with a different agenda stood in the Idaho House and lied to their colleagues and the public about the bill.

That’s not the first time. It won’t be the last.

What’s sad is southeastern Idaho representatives supporting those lies with votes on the House floor. It would be better if we had lawmakers more capable of critical thinking than that.

Dave Finkelnburg is a longtime Idahoan, a former newspaper journalist, and is currently semi-retired from an engineering career.