Idaho lawmakers cut $2.5M in funding for social justice education at 3 public universities


Dive Brief:

  • Idaho’s legislature this week cut a total $2.5 million in funding for social justice programming at three of its public universities. 

  • Lawmakers kept overall higher education spending flat for the coming fiscal year, at $629.9 million. About $32.8 million of that money came from federal COVID-19 relief.

  • The targeted reduction comes after the legislature passed a measure that would block state funds for schools that teach certain concepts related to race.

Dive Insight:

News reports document how the debate over the higher ed budget soured. Republican state lawmakers expressed fears that colleges have been indoctrinating students to liberal views, a common GOP refrain that opponents say has little merit. 

The budget bill, which has passed both chambers of the legislature, represents a deal to placate those concerns, news reports suggest, though one Republican lawmaker called for an $18 million reduction during deliberations, the Idaho Statesman reported. The official said money for services such as women’s centers and diversity and equity offices should be scaled back, according to the publication.

The cut for social justice programs applies to Boise State University, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho. Boise State President Marlene Tromp said in an emailed statement to Higher Ed Dive that the cut is “painful” at a time when the pandemic has already challenged the institution financially. Federal relief dollars have not made up for these losses, Tromp said.

The other two schools did not provide a comment to Higher Ed Dive by publication time Wednesday.

An earlier version of the bill contained language that would have required the State Board of Education to verify that public funds wouldn’t be used to support “social justice ideology” among student clubs and activities, according to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank that was critical of the legislation. The organization estimated Idaho’s public universities spend about $20 million on social justice and critical race theory programming.

However, the current bill has a provision that calls for the state education board to evaluate and potentially change the fees students pay to fund clubs and activities that are “focused on individual beliefs and values.” 

The spending measure now heads to Republican Gov. Brad Little for his signature. In addition to the money for the coming fiscal year, lawmakers provided $49.4 million in one-time relief funding for higher ed for the current year, which came from a federal coronavirus aid package.

Across the country, state higher ed policy and funding has been complicated by some Republican lawmakers’ attempts to take a more direct role dictating colleges’ operations. The Iowa Senate passed a bill late last month that would bar public institutions from teaching certain topics in diversity training, with the legislation’s sponsor citing similar concerns over “indoctrination” of students, according to the Des Moines Register. 

Florida’s governor is pushing a measure that would require colleges to report gifts from foreign entities worth $50,000 or more. Lawmakers in Iowa and Florida have also mulled whether they should cut appropriations because of federal aid coming to colleges.

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