Who picks school curriculum? Idaho law hands more power to parents

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — When J.D. Davis, the department chair of English at Twin Falls High School, was told last year that half of the committee he was leading to pick new texts and materials for the district’s English Language Arts classrooms would be parents and community members, he objected.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to have parents involved! They don’t know what we’re doing. They don’t know what we need in a textbook as far as curriculum.’ I kind of scoffed at it,” said Davis, who also teaches journalism, oversees the school newspaper and advises the Gay-Straight Alliance.

A new Idaho law gave him no choice.

Across the U.S., educators typically lead textbook selections, although many districts, like Twin Falls, have long included parents in the process. Idaho’s “District Curricular Adoption Committees” law makes parent involvement mandatory — and then some — demanding districts form committees of at least 50 percent non-educators, including parents of current students, to review and recommend new texts and materials.

A year in, the law is reshaping what is or isn’t in the curriculum in many counties in this Western state, including how subjects like climate change or social movements are discussed in some courses.

It has spurred tough but positive parent-school discussions in Twin Falls where parents and educators say the conversations have forced them to consider one another’s concerns and perspectives. In other districts, however, it’s poised to harden divisions and keep students from getting learning tools they need.

Whitney Urmann, who attended schools in West Bonner County School District and taught fourth grade last year, packed up her classroom to teach in California. Credit: Image provided by Seth Hodgson

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Around the country, curricula — books and materials that guide but don’t define lessons — have become a political target of conservatives who fear conflict with values they want to instill in their children. Over the past two years, 147 “parental rights” bills were introduced in state legislatures, according to a legal tracker by the education think tank FutureEd.

Only a handful passed. Many restrict discussions around race and gender. Several enforce parents’ ability to review texts and materials. A 2022 Georgia “Parents’ Bill of Rights” requires that schools provide parents access to classroom and assigned materials within three days of a request. The Idaho curriculum law, embraced by the state’s conservative legislature, went into effect in July 2022.

The curriculum law is noteworthy because it gives non-educators more power not just to inspect curriculum, but to help choose it.

Twin Falls High School is home to English department chair J.D. Davis, who led a committee that was 50 percent community members and parents in selecting a new district English Language Arts curriculum, in accordance with a new Idaho law. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Some educators view it as a political move to undercut their professional role. “The parent partnership is important,” said Peggy Hoy, an instructional coach in the Twin Falls district and the National Education Association director for Idaho. “The problem is when you make a rule like they did and there is this requirement, it feels as an educator that the underlying reason is to drive a wedge between the classroom and parents.”

Sally Toone, a recently retired state representative and veteran teacher who opposed the law, sees it as a legislative move by conservatives “to have parents be a driver, instead of a partner, in the educational process.”

Educators also voiced practical considerations. It can be tough for districts to find parents to devote time to curriculum review. Many have had to scramble, Hoy and others said. Only three non-educators agreed to serve on a math curriculum committee in Twin Falls, which meant that only three educators could participate — fewer than half the optimal number, said the educator who led the committee. Ditto for a science curriculum committee in Coeur D’Alene.

“My family and I are very religious. My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’ ”

Chris Reid, a father of seven who served on the committee to select a new English Language Arts curriculum for the Twin Falls School District

Having many non-educators involved also changes how materials are judged. Educators want to know, for example, if lessons are clear and organized, and whether they connect to prior learning and support students of differing levels. By contrast, “parents don’t understand the pedagogy of what happens in a curriculum,” said Hoy. They “look at the stories, the word problems, the way they are explaining it.”

Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican state legislator who sponsored the law, initially agreed to an interview but did not respond to several requests to arrange it.

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During the review process in Twin Falls, a district with 9,300 students in southern Idaho, parents objected to a theme around peaceful protests, the tone of questions around climate change and lessons that included social emotional learning.

The curriculum with social emotional learning “got nixed pretty quickly,” said Davis, the English teacher leading the committee. Social emotional learning (SEL) — tools and strategies that research shows can help students better grasp academic content — has become a new lightning rod for the far-right across and is often conflated with Critical Race Theory or CRT.

Chris Reid, a banker and vice mayor of Twin Falls and father with seven children in the public schools, said he was eager to help select the new English Language Arts curriculum and make sure materials were “age-appropriate” and not include “revisionist history,” LGBTQ themes or sexuality introduced “to younger-age children.”

“My family and I are very religious,” said Reid, sitting one afternoon in his mezzanine office at First Federal Bank. “My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’”

Chris Reid, a father of seven who served on the committee to select a new English Language Arts curriculum for the Twin Falls School District, in his office at First Federal Bank. Participating in the curriculum review, he said, convinced him that teachers “are not trying to indoctrinate my child.” Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Despite some tense conversations, Davis, the teacher, said the process was overall “not threatening.” He also liked the curriculum choice, the myPerspectives textbooks by Savvas Learning Company. He does, however, see risks with the new mandate, including that a parent or community member with an agenda “could hamstring the district from getting the best textbook,” he said. “It could literally be one member of the committee.”

Committee member Anna Rill, a teacher at Canyon Ridge High School, said the difficult conversations about content “made us think a little more about the community you are living in and that you are serving.”

Twin Falls, named for the waterfalls formed by the Snake River Canyon dam, which in the early 1900s turned the area from desert into a rich agricultural region now called “The Magic Valley,” is politically conservative (70 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2020). L.H. Erickson, director of secondary programs for the school district, said he thought the curriculum “should meet the values and ideals of your community.”

Increasing public involvement makes good sense because schools must be responsive to parent views, said Erickson. “Parents give us their children for several hours a day and a lot of trust and we want to make sure to earn and keep that trust.”

Reid, the father of seven, liked being able to share his. “I got to hear other perspectives; they got to understand my side on the content,” he said. The experience led him to conclude that, “teachers are not evil. They are not trying to indoctrinate my child.”

Related: States were adding lessons about Native American history. Then came the anti-CRT movement

The new law may help to build bridges in Twin Falls and some other communities. But in West Bonner County, which serves about 1,000 students in rural north Idaho, a year-old dispute over an English Language Arts curriculum continues to fuel division.

The blow-up began last summer. In June, before the new law went into effect, the curriculum review committee, which included a few parents, chose the Wonders English Language Arts curriculum from McGraw-Hill. The school board approved it quickly and unanimously. The materials were purchased and delivered. “They were stacked in the hallways,” one parent said.

Then, some local conservative activists loudly objected, saying the materials contained social emotional learning components. In developing the curriculum, McGraw-Hill had partnered with Sesame Workshop to include SEL skills that language on the Wonders site said included “a focus on self-confidence, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior.” At a meeting on Aug. 24, 2022, the school board voted 3-1 to rescind the curriculum.

Sally Toone, a rancher, teacher for 37 years and recently retired state representative, voted against the Idaho curriculum review law, which she said was a move by conservatives “to have parents be a driver, instead of a partner, in the educational process.” Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Because the existing curriculum is out of print, the district lacked a reading program last year.

“We had no spelling lists, no word work. The first unit was on the desert and we live in north Idaho,” said Whitney Urmann, who taught fourth grade last year at West Bonner County School District’s Priest Lake Elementary School. “Very early on, I stopped using the curriculum,” Urmann said.

She had two workbooks for her entire class and few books leveled to her students’ abilities. Other materials were incomplete or irrelevant, she said. From mid-October on, she said, she purchased materials herself, spending $2,000 of her $47,000 salary to be able to teach reading.

The board’s decision, said Margaret Hall, the board member who cast the dissenting vote, “has created some ill feelings.” Indeed: Two board members who voted to rescind the curriculum now face a recall after parents gathered enough signatures on petitions to force a vote.

Shouting at one school board meeting in June went on for nearly four hours.

The dispute, and the subsequent absence of teaching materials, has upset some local parents.

Hailey Scott, a mother of three, said she worries that her child entering first grade, an advanced reader, won’t “be challenged.” Meanwhile, her third grader is behind in reading, said Scott, “and I fear she will be set back even more by not having a state-approved curriculum in her classroom.”

Whitney Hutchins, who grew up in the district and works at the Priest Lake resort her family has owned and operated for generations, recently decided with her husband to move across the state line to Spokane, Washington.

“This is not the environment I want to raise my child in,” said Hutchins, mother of an 18-month-old. She said the curriculum law is part of a larger problem of extremists gaining control and destroying civic institutions.

“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers,” she said. “It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”

Whitney Urmann, a fourth grade teacher at Priest Lake Elementary School last year, said that by October she had exhausted all available materials in the reading curriculum, which is out of print. Credit: Image provided by Whitney Urmann

Hutchins doesn’t see things improving. The school board, on a 3-2 vote, chose Branden Durst — who was previously a senior analyst at the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation and has no educational experience — as the district’s new superintendent over Susie Luckey, the interim superintendent and a veteran educator in the district.

Durst said that he wanted the job because of the district’s challenges, including around curriculum. “I have a lot of ideas that are frankly unorthodox in education. I needed to prove to myself that those things are right,” he said. Those ideas could include using a curriculum developed by the conservative Christian Hillsdale College, he said.

Durst is currently assembling a new committee with plans to quickly adopt a new English Language Arts curriculum, but declined to share details.

“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers. It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”

Whitney Hutchins, mother who recently decided to leave Twin Falls for Spokane, Washington

Jessica Rogers, who served on the committee that picked the Wonders curriculum, said she saw hints of trouble long before the vote to reject the curriculum. She said the curriculum adoption committee anticipated political attacks, including over images that showed racial diversity. “One of the things we did was go through the curriculum and see where the first blond-haired, blue-eyed boy was,” she recalled, adding that they noted pages to use as a defense.

It was, she said, “bizarre.”

Rogers and her husband recently built a home atop a hill with a broad view of Chase Lake. As her three daughters had a water fight on the patio, she hoped aloud that building in the West Bonner County School District was not a mistake.

This story about curriculum reviews was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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