Meet The Idaho Climate Justice League Which Fought for Revised Science Standards

"There are students in other parts of the state where teachers are afraid to teach climate change because of political pushback."


The Idaho high school students who dared speak the words "climate change" during a House Education Committee hearing on science standards said they felt "disrespected." Don't think for a moment, however, that they're deterred.

"It's not about us. We're fortunate to go to school in Boise. This is about students from across Idaho," said 17-year-old Emily Herr, a senior at Timberline High School. "There are students in other parts of the state where teachers are afraid to teach climate change because of political pushback in their community."

Throughout the hearing on Feb. 2 and 3 at the Idaho Statehouse, committee Chairwoman Rep. Julie VanOrden (R-Pingree) chastised anyone who dared use the phrase "climate change."

"When she cut me off, I was talking about how climate change and biodiversity had been included in the new standards. So, I was taken aback when I was interrupted," said 17-year-old Therese Etoka, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and is a senior at Boise High School. "But I had to keep pushing on something I'm about very passionate about: our education. When I returned to school, a lot of my fellow students asked, 'How did it go?' I told them what had happened, and I made a point of returning to the hearing the next day, just to show the committee I wasn't afraid. They were not going to take away something that I really care about."

Herr said during her testimony, she was admonished for saying "climate change" but oddly enough, not for using a related term.

"That was kind of weird," Herr said. "I was talking about how biodiversity and climate change were both referenced in the standards. She didn't seem to care when I said 'biodiversity.'"

Herr, Etoka and students from other Idaho schools are members of a group called the Climate Justice League, in association with the Idaho Chapter of the Sierra Club.

"We've talked to students at a number of junior and senior high schools about this. Plus, we've sent out mass emails, asking them to consider signing a petition supporting the proposed standards," said 18-year-old Cassie Kenyon, a senior at Timberline High School. "The last time we checked, we had more than 1,100 signatures. We've received support from across the Treasure Valley."

Supporters include 17-year-old Adam Thompson, a senior at Capitol High School and another member of the Climate Justice League.

"I've grown up here in Boise with a deep appreciation for the outdoors. When I learned that some legislators wanted to politicize our education, really disgusts me," said Thompson. "Understanding climate change is much more than just science. In our American Government class, we talk about how climate change impacts so many of our current events."

Chris Taylor, a 20-year Idaho educator, served on the State Department of Education Science Standards Committee that helped craft the proposed revisions put before the House Education Committee. Taylor taught science at six schools and served as a principal at a Boise elementary school before becoming the Boise School District science and social studies supervisor.

"I'm proud to say that climate change is embedded in the curriculum across the Boise School District," said Taylor. "But I truly worry about students graduating from Idaho schools without a full understanding of science, including climate change, before they go to college."

Taylor said his heart sank when the majority of the House Education Committee voted Feb. 7 to censor a section of the proposed standards that referred to how fourth graders would learn about the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

"It's a critical element. They all are. Those proposed standards were written by Idaho teachers and scientists for all Idaho students," said Taylor. "We heard from citizens all across Idaho."

The House Education Committee ultimately voted 12-4 to omit section ESS3-4-1 and any supporting content on fossil fuels from the proposed standards. All 12 votes to censor the standards came from Republicans. Only GOP Rep. Pat McDonald (R-Boise) voted with three democrats to support the standards as written.

"At what point do we trust our teachers?" asked Rep. Sally Toone (D-Gooding), a 37-year educator before being elected to the Idaho House. "They spent thousands of hours on this."

But Rep. Barbara Ehardt (R-Idaho Falls) said she got a different story from Idaho educators.

"I heard feedback from teachers, saying, 'Trust us, and don't put the supporting content in there,'" said Ehardt.

The decision to scrub the standards triggered national headlines: The New York Times and The Washington Post reported on it. The Times quoted the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, who called the vote, "a continuation of the assault" on the inclusion of climate change in science standards.

Taylor said there's room for hope, though.

"I don't think a lot of people know there's still a chance to salvage the proposed standards," he said. "We're going to take this up with the Idaho Senate Education Committee, which has the option to undo the House's decision. I've talked to a number of senators already, and they're passionate about doing the right thing."

When the Senate Education Committee take up the proposal, it's a fair bet some Idaho students will return to testify.

"I'm optimistic. I think it's fair to say that we all are," said Etoka. "We have to be. This is too important."