There is $6m from Donald Trump’s administration sitting on the table in Idaho, and trying to pick it up has caused an extraordinary uproar.
In the months since a Republican house of representatives member first brought the grant for early childhood education to the legislature for a vote, far-right opponents have insisted, despite evidence and assurances proving otherwise, that the grant would be used to “indoctrinate” children five and under, and turn them into social justice activists.
Supporters of the grant include the state’s two Republican senators and its business lobby, but the most vocal opponents have pitched it as a “battle for the soul of America”.
The real battle, however, appears to be against the influence of fringe voices in Idaho politics. Though seemingly an obscure battle, the intensity of the fight in the state and the blood-curdling language used by its opponents reveals much about American politics in the post-Trump era.
It is a place where conspiracy theories run amok and where even some Republican legislators are at a loss how to combat the extremism of many of their supporters, who have concluded that grant money for educating young children represents a dire threat to their way of life.
Mike Satz, executive director of a new effort to combat extremism in Idaho, the Idaho 97 Project, said: “The politics have really started devolving and the extremists have really started taking control of the Republican party in the state, and now the policies are not for the people – conservative or liberal or whatever the ideology is.”
When it comes to the early childhood grant, the people who would be affected by it are watching and waiting to see if the money will be available to improve access to care – a typical family in the state spends 25% of its annual income on care for an infant and a four-year-old.
A vote in the house on whether or not to accept the money is expected any day. The house initially rejected the funds in early March, but the state senate approved an amended version of the bill by one vote earlier this month.
Supporters have flooded local news with opinion pieces clarifying misconceptions about the grant and explaining exactly how the money would be used, but they face a mountain of misinformation coming from some rightwing lawmakers and the libertarian group Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF).
The Republican representative Charlie Shepherd provided an insight into this last week, when he told the Idaho Press that he approves of the amended version of the bill after voting against it in March.
Shepherd said that his earlier concerns about “indoctrination” had been addressed, but his constituents were not aware of that change. “And if I cannot educate them on what the bill actually does in time. At this point it’s almost political suicide for me to support the bill,” he confessed.
The amended version of the bill includes language that specifies that the appropriated money “shall not be used to dictate curricula for use by local collaboratives”. That was also true before, but the additional language makes it legally binding.
The executive director of one Idaho collaborative which could receive some of the funds, Andrew Mentzer, said the money would be beneficial for expanding childcare capacity and to help existing providers stay afloat in Valley County, a scenic, rural region in the west central part of the state.
“We lost two childcare facilities in the past 15 months in our area and that put about 50 families in a pretty bad position, during a pandemic, with regard to how and when they can go to work,” said Mentzer, executive director of the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council.
“A lot of the families ended up with situations where they had to cut hours or had a parent who couldn’t go to work, and that’s food on the table at the end of the day for the individual families.”
Already, the community is short 400 childcare slots. “Those are 400 kids whose parents can’t go to work,” Mentzer said.
The people stirring the pot
The grant money would be distributed to local collaboratives like Mentzer’s by the not-for-profit Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (Idaho AEYC). This group is separate from its national affiliate, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a professional membership organization for people who work in education and childcare.
But opponents to the bill see a conspiracy between the two groups.
Their concern is that the NAEYC promotes anti-bias education and mentions critical race theory on its website and the Idaho AEYC partners with a local group, the Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL), that has received a grant unrelated to the early childhood money to diversify libraries. Many grant opponents have taken issue with resources for diverse books that the NAEYC and ICfL link to on their sites, though providing diverse books is not mandated by the early childhood grant.
When the Guardian called the Republican representative Lance Clow he was working on a document to educate his fellow legislators about what the grant actually seeks to do: provide local collaboratives with money to best address early childhood needs in their community.
Clow knows the ins and outs of the grant better than most: he is chairman of the house education committee and was involved with the first funding round used to assess the needs for early childhood education and childcare in the state.
“I don’t know if I would call myself an advocate, but I’ve been in the middle of it, and I don’t see the issues that have been raised,” Clow said.
He is sympathetic to his fellow Republicans’ concerns about critical race theory – he thinks some of its tenets are divisive – and last week voted for a bill that bans it from schools. He said the Idaho AEYC made a mistake in mentioning the national group on its website, something that provided material for the grant’s opponents, even though it was not actually connected to the money’s use.
“This is a conservative state, and local control, the family, the parents … there is a big emphasis on protecting their rights and allowing those kind of freedoms and the focus of this grant unfortunately has drifted into a concern with the national association,” he said.
He is not sure how receptive his colleagues will be to his attempts to clarify misinformation about the grant. He has noticed a difference in politicians: some will go out, speak to people and have a dialogue. Others show up to the statehouse, tell people about evils that must be stopped and stir the pot, he said.
Another force stirring the pot is IFF, which continues to oppose the grant. Its advocacy arm, Idaho Freedom Action, created form letters for voters to send to representatives this month asking them to vote against the bill, warning it is “a battle for the soul of America”.
“Senate bill 1193 would allow this radical group to teach toddlers and pre-school children to hate America,” the suggested letter reads.
In response to interview requests from the Guardian, the IFF said it had a policy of not speaking to the media.
One of the most vocal opponents to the bill, the Republican representative Priscilla Giddings, has in recent weeks appeared in “Woke Story Time” videos for IFF where she reads diverse books, even though they are not required by the grant.
Giddings said in an email to the Guardian she still planned to vote against the money because it would be used to advocate for critical race theory. When asked to provide evidence of this, she said: “I have lots of evidence that I will discuss during debate when it comes up for a floor vote.”
‘People don’t want Idaho run by an armed mob’
Lori Fascilla, the executive director of the non-profit Giraffe Laugh Learning Centers, said she was “shocked by the lack of understanding in the statehouse of how important the childcare industry is to our state’s economy”.
Writing in the Idaho Statesman, Fascilla explained how the pandemic has seen 200 childcare providers in Idaho close since September, a problem reflected nationally: one in six childcare jobs has been lost across the country since the pandemic started.
“Our industry was already fragile before the pandemic and even more so now,” Fascilla wrote. “If it collapses, then so will our economy.”
The fear-based tactics influencing legislation in Idaho including and beyond the early childhood grant has prompted broader concerns about what is happening in the statehouse.
Earlier this month, the Idaho Statesman’s opinion editor, Scott McIntosh, published a reported two-part series titled: “Why even Republicans are calling this the ‘worst session ever’ for Idaho ‘legislature.” This series and other local media are littered with quotes from Idahoans including Republicans and business leaders concerned about the damage extremism is having on the state.
A co-founder of the Idaho 97 Project, Emily Walton, said she was moved to help create the group when a local health board had to cancel their vote on a Covid-19 public health order in December because anti-mask protesters had gathered outside the homes of some of the board members, including one commissioner whose children were home alone.
Months earlier in August, protesters against coronavirus restrictions shoved their way into the entry of the state capitol building and shattered a glass door, a small-scale preview of what was to come at the US Capitol on 6 January.
The Idaho 97 project’s name is a play on the Three Percenters – a rightwing militia group. “I believe that there are more moderate people in Idaho who don’t want things run by an armed mob, and that’s why we started,” Walton said.
The armed mob description is literal. Walton and other Idaho 97 members described how it had become common for individuals armed with assault rifles and dressed in fatigues to patrol the streets in Boise.
And at least four House Republicans have ties to extremist, anti-government militia movements including the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, according to the Idaho Statesman. One of these representatives, Chad Christensen, lists the Oath Keepers and the John Birch Society, also an anti-government extremist movement, as organizations he is a part of in his official legislative biography. All four voted against the early childhood grant.
Elizabeth Neumann worked in the Trump administration as an assistant secretary of homeland security for counter-terrorism and threat reduction. She resigned in April 2020 and has spoken about how the Trump administration ignored the threat of domestic extremism.
A lifelong Republican, Neumann is co-director of the Republican Accountability Project, which seeks to uphold democracy and hold those Republicans who attempted to overturn the 2020 election accountable.
Neumann said the uproar over childcare in Idaho was indicative of the times, where issues quickly become a part of the “constant outrage cycle” driven by far-right figures like Tucker Carlson and networks like One America News Network.
“Right now what we see in a lot of conservative or Republican circles is very fear-based,” Neumann said. “So you can almost take out the issues and in six months it will be something else and that’s because on the right, especially as a minority party at this point, they are being told that their values are not appreciated, they are no longer wanted, that they are being ostracized and cancelled.”