In Idaho, A Battle Over Climate In The Classroom

4:35 minutes

teacher in front of science class
Credit: Credit: U.S. Department Of Education/flickr/CC BY 2.0

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story originally appeared on KBSX in Boise.

An Idaho House committee eliminated several references to human-caused climate change and renewable energy in proposed public school science standards Wednesday, but still preserved some mention of them.

One specific section lawmakers cut outlined the difference between renewable energy sources like solar and wind power and non-renewable sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear power.

They did leave in a few references to man-made climate change, which they’ve rejected the past two years, but cut several others.

Still, some lawmakers, like Rep. Sally Toone (D-Gooding), say there’s no reason to reject recommendations from a panel of some of Idaho’s best educators.

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“At what point do we trust our teachers? We have great teachers and they spent thousands of hours on this document,” Toone says.

Specifically, the section the committee cut references to how different energy resources affect the environment. It reads:

Obtain and combine information to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment.

Examples of renewable energy resources could include wind energy, water behind dams, and sunlight; non-renewable energy resources are fossil fuels and atomic energy. Examples of environmental effects could include negative biological impacts of wind turbines, erosion due to deforestation, loss of habitat due to dams, loss of habitat due to surface mining, and air pollution from burning of fossil fuels. 

Despite eliminating a handful of references to climate change, Rep. Barbara Ehardt (R-Idaho Falls) says that doesn’t mean teachers can’t include them in their lesson plans.

“It can be used. Make no mistake about it, nobody, no one is preventing the content that has been presented from being used,” Ehardt says.

Rep. John McCrostie (D-Garden City) attempted to pass the standards as-is, but the motion was voted down, despite two days of overwhelming testimony from teachers, students and business groups in support of doing so.

The Senate Education Committee will now consider the plan, which they could overturn. It’s unclear when they will schedule a hearing.

Clarification: The original story said the committee preserved climate change references in the public school science standards. In fact, some of them were cut, but there are still several references to climate change left under the proposal passed by the House Education Committee.

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Segment Guests

James Dawson

James Dawson is News Director at Boise State Public Radio in Boise, Idaho.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time for the state of science.

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IRA FLATOW: Focusing on a science story near you. Today, what does a state legislature’s education committee have to do with climate change? Well, many decisions about a school’s curriculum get made at the state level in the form of setting statewide standards that classrooms need to meet.

And in Idaho, the legislature is currently working on revising standards for the state’s science curriculum. And one topic at issue? How to address the topic of climate change for Idaho teachers, from those in rural, one-room schoolhouses to big classrooms in downtown Boise.

Joining me now is James Dawson, news director at Boise State Public Radio. He has been following the climate change curriculum issue as it wends its way through the legislature there. Welcome to the program.

JAMES DAWSON: Hey, glad to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So walk us through what’s going on there. For the past three years, the state has been working with extensions to temporary standards?

JAMES DAWSON: Yeah, that’s right. Like you mentioned, this has been a three-year process. The first time that these standards were brought to the Idaho legislature for approval, the education committees wanted a little bit more public input into the standards themselves. So they convened this large, expansive committee to go ahead and take that public comment, maybe rewrite a little bit.

Second year, the education committees did remove several standards with references to man-made climate change. And they continued to act under a temporary rule, kind of kicked it back to the Department of Education. And now this year, those standards are left in. There are still several references to man-made climate change in the standards themselves. But the lawmakers are taking aim at this so-called supporting content, which is basically just more expansive references to maybe what aspects of climate change should be taught in public schools.

IRA FLATOW: And these would be mandatory standards. In other words, these are the things that teachers have to teach.

JAMES DAWSON: Yes, that’s correct.

IRA FLATOW: And so can you give us any– get into the weeds a bit of what is missing and what’s included?

JAMES DAWSON: Well, what is included are, you know, how humans would impact climate change, how burning fossil fuels does lead to climate change. But also included in these standards would be references to how the natural world can affect climate change, like volcanic activity, for instance. But there are references to sea level rise. What’s excluded– the House Education Committee last week did exclude or are trying to exclude one standard that would reference renewable versus non-renewable energy, for instance.

IRA FLATOW: But there’s nothing in the standards that could prevent a teacher from voluntarily putting in, him or herself, what’s missing from the standards.

JAMES DAWSON: Yeah, that’s correct. So for instance, I’ve spoken with folks from the Boise school district. And they’ve been teaching these aspects of climate change for a long time now. But what they and others are worried about is if the supporting content is removed ultimately, then maybe teachers in, like you referenced, one-room schoolhouses– we do have those here– and more conservative districts won’t feel supported by their community, who might be much more conservative than, say, Boise, for instance.

IRA FLATOW: So the main focus is then on how much autonomy the teachers have. Do you think eventually it is going to be left up to the individual teacher to decide how much to put in there?

JAMES DAWSON: Well, that’s always been the case. Multiple lawmakers during these hearings have said that we trust these teachers, we expect them to know how to teach, and we support what they’re doing. It’s just, opponents say– or supporters of the standards say that they worried that community opinion would actually stifle that teaching.

IRA FLATOW: So I guess it’s going to wend its way through the Senate.

JAMES DAWSON: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We actually had a hearing yesterday in the Senate Education Committee. Even more people testified in support of these standards.

And that’s been present all along. It’s just overwhelming support from the community, the business community, people in the public school system, who say that they do support these standards as written, and they don’t want any edits made to them.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll be following that. Thank you, James, for taking time to be with us today.

JAMES DAWSON: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: James Dawson, news director at Boise State Public Radio. And you can find a link to his reports on our website at sciencefriday.com.

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