Idaho lawmakers no longer plan to ban climate science from public schools

After a year of back and forth, lawmakers decide to keep references to climate science in the state's science curriculum.

Students from Lake City High School visit Farragut State Park in Idaho measure the core of a tree to learn about the effect that trees have on the environment. (CREDIT: Rajah Bose for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Students from Lake City High School visit Farragut State Park in Idaho measure the core of a tree to learn about the effect that trees have on the environment. (CREDIT: Rajah Bose for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

After a year of back and forth between educators, scientists, and lawmakers, climate science might once again be part of the statewide curriculum for public schools in Idaho.

Last year, lawmakers in Idaho voted to approve new science standards for the statewide curriculum for the first time since 2001, with one glaring omission: they chose to delete all five paragraphs of the standard that referenced human-caused climate change.

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This year, when lawmakers went to re-approve those standards, the issue of whether or not to include references to climate science set off a debate that pitted Republicans in the state legislature against teachers, students, and scientists.

In February, despite hours of public testimony overwhelmingly in favor of including climate science, the House Education Committee voted to adopt science standards without key references to climate change. This included all of the standard’s supporting content that was meant to help teachers convey a deeper understanding of the issue to their students.

That exclusion, however, was short lived.

Last Thursday, the Idaho Senate Committee voted to adopt the science standards as written, meaning that references to climate science — as well as all of the supporting content — would be included.

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The legislature has until the end of March to agree on a set of standards; if both chambers of the legislature fail to agree, the standards will go into effect as written, without any references to climate science being removed. Those standards would then remain in place for the next five years.

“To be honest, it’s kind of embarrassing that it’s been so controversial,” State Senator Janie Ward-Engelking (D) told the New York Times of the state’s efforts to suppress climate science in classrooms.

Emily Herr, a 17-year old student from Boise who supported including climate science in the standards, told the New York Times that getting the legislature to approve the new curriculum was “definitely a group effort.”

For weeks, students had appeared at public hearings and written op-eds in an attempt to convince lawmakers to let them learn about climate science in public schools.

“Science education shouldn’t be a political issue,” said Cassandra Kenyon, a senior at a Boise high school who spoke in support the science standards, said at a public hearing before the House Education Committee in early February. “Education is being censored due to political fears, and students are the ones that are suffering.”

Last year, nine states considered bills that would have restricted the kind of science taught in public schools, or encouraged teachers to present alternative sides to the climate debate — despite the fact that 97 percent of publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is both happening and a result of human activity. Only one of those bills — one in Alabama that encourages “academic freedom regarding scientific evidence subjects” — successfully passed.

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But as the Trump administration has made climate science denial a hallmark of its administration, conservative think tanks peddling fringe scientific theories have attempted to flex their newfound influence over public education and science curricula throughout the country.

In May 2016, the Heartland Institute — a Koch and Exxon-funded think tank that routinely challenges the scientific consensus on climate change — announced that it would be sending copies of a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming to every science teacher in the country.

In response, a group of scientists from the Paleontological Research Institution launched a project to mail copies of The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change — a resource aimed at helping teachers combat misinformation surrounding climate science — to science teachers nationwide. A few weeks ago, the group mailed copies of the book to every public high school in Idaho.

“As we look forward to the coming decades, the most important challenges that we as a society face are grounded in the very connected issues of climate, energy, water, and soil,” Don Duggan-Haas, director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institution and an author of the book, told ThinkProgress at the time. “If we don’t understand what we’re doing with, and to, those resources, then we are in serious trouble.”