Idaho (ABC4) – A bill recently signed by Idaho Governor Brad Little regarding critical race theory in public educational institutions has many scratching their heads about what it actually means.

And the “ambiguous” writing in the law has some fearing that legislators can interpret it in a wide variety of ways to exert control over what educators can and can’t teach.

House Bill 377 states that “the Idaho legislature finds that the tenets… often found in “critical race theory”… exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in a way contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens.”

Britannica defines critical race theory as an “intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour. Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.”

Idaho Representative Ron Nate, one of the bill’s sponsors, issued the following comment to ABC4 concerning the bill-turned-law:

“Public funds should never be used to promote hate and racism. House Bill 377 is a great win for Idaho because it prohibits the promotion of Social Justice programming and advocacy for Critical Race Theory (CRT) in our schools and universities. CRT, rooted in Marxist thought, is a pernicious way of viewing the world. It demands that everything in society be viewed through the lens of racism, sexism, and power. CRT tries to make kids feel bad because of the color of their skin, or their sex, or any other category—one group is seen as an aggrieved minority and another group is the oppressive majority. The legislative success of H.B. 377 is only the beginning of removing the cancer of CRT from universities and preventing it from spreading into our K-12 education.  Now it’s up to the legislature to follow through on the new law and make sure not a single penny of public money goes to promoting those Marxist ideologies.”

Though the law mentions critical race theory, it doesn’t define the term. And Rep. Nate says there’s a reason for that.

“Just like the Constitution, if you leave things simpler and up for interpretation, then even though the language changes, the enforcement is still there,” he says.

According to Representative Wendy Horman, another sponsor of the law, it “does not ban teaching about critical race theory, white supremacy, racism, sexism, communism or any other ism or difficult subject in our history. What it does prohibit is compelling ‘students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to’ discriminatory beliefs or practices as described in Section 3(a). Section 3(b) is directly from the Idaho Constitution.”

Under the law, “you’re not inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by members of those same classes,” she states.

Rep. Horman says her interest in the law did not initially involve critical race theory or any sort of concerted effort. Rather, before the legislative session began, she heard concerns from parents who were worried that assignments their children were receiving in school showed bias.

For example, one parent told her that their student received an assignment on Greta Thunberg and how she was making a difference on climate change. In Horman’s opinion, the assignment makes presumptions, such as telling students that Thunberg’s actions are having an impact, and presumes that climate change is happening.

“There are a whole lot of variations of belief in there,” she says. “I want to see our public schools be a place where all people and all beliefs have a seat at the table, and I don’t want to see them become the next political battleground, and I think that’s what happening now.”

“There was one right answer on that assignment,” Horman says, “and if you didn’t write it that way, you weren’t graded well.”

But does the bill prohibit having difficult conversations about race in schools? ABC4 received different answers from different legislators sponsoring the bill on this account.

Rep. Horman says conversations about race are welcome under this bill.

“Absolutely, and I would never sponsor a bill that dictated otherwise,” she says. However, she says that she believes that earlier versions of the bill “leaned in that direction.”

“I was not comfortable with those bills…,” she says. “Earlier drafts of the bill did veer into space I was not comfortable with frankly, and I was called back to the table to bring it back to a consensus bill that was about what my original bill had been titled and that’s dignity and nondiscrimination in public education. That’s how I got re-involved and made sure that the bill that did come forward did not place limitations on our teachers or our students or our parents.”

Rep. Nate, on the other hand, says these conversations are not for the classroom.

“… if it’s making them feel uncomfortable, then maybe it’s an issue that’s best handled with parents who are in a loving and caring position with their kids moreso than any teachers who might have a political axe to grind.”

Edmund Fong, an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah, is concerned that this law could easily dissuade teachers from broaching conversations about race in the classroom.

“I think it’s a really unfortunate bill. It’s very ambiguously written,” he states. “Any time we talk about race in the classroom, it can be a difficult thing because not only are you talking about something in the past, you are trying to talk about how it’s something that is present today. And whenever you’re engaging in something that is lived and in existence today or in the present, that does kind of invite these more controversial, uncomfortable conversations, and that’s where something that I teach might run afoul with this bill.”

He uses the example of discussing slavery in the classroom.

“Where it’s okay to talk about slavery as something safely put in the box in the past, but if you’re trying to talk about how slavery’s effect on today or how individual students understand slavery today and how that matters, that could potentially run afoul of this law. It really does kind of create a chilling effect on these difficult conversations that are necessary for trying to understand racism today,” he explains.

Furthermore, the ambiguous nature of the bill makes it hard to understand what teachers are allowed to teach and what is prohibited, he says. The bill doesn’t say that teachers can’t teach about critical race theory, but that they can’t compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to any of these tenants.

“Well, what does that mean? Does that mean that if I just teach it that that’s okay, or does it mean that I need to require a student to agree with some of the ideas of critical race theory? There’s a wide discretion of interpretation in terms of whether me as an instructor is requiring someone to affirm, adopt, or adhere to it. If I’m teaching around the disparities of lethal shooting of African Americans and a student disagrees… is that me requiring or compelling them to affirm this? Does that violate the law? Because it’s so ambiguous, I think administrators and instructors will try to be more safe than sorry, steer clear of any of these difficult, controversial topics…” Fong states.

He says he fears that the bill will cause educators to self-censor so that legislators don’t have to directly censor them.

“… it will depend on how state legislators want to weaponize this bill,” he says.

And how will this law be enforced?

“The main plan for enforcing it- you’ll notice the bill doesn’t have a penalty worked into it- but the plan for enforcement is through the budgeting process- that we are not supposed to be spending public funds for promoting or advocating for critical race theory or social justice promotion. And so if that happens, then we have to respond by cutting budgets,” Rep. Ron Nate says.

“Educators cannot make students affirm something that goes against their values or their beliefs. They cannot do what critical race theory does, which demonizes white kids for being born. It teaches that Whiteness is a privilege and something students should feel guilty about and apologize for. It also teaches students of color that they are not privileged and that they should feel victimized and oppressed,” he adds.