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Amid debate over critical race theory, proposed Utah legislation aims to increase curriculum transparency

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, talks at Ensign Elementary School in Salt Lake City on May 16, 2017. Fillmore is proposing new legislation aimed at increasing curriculum transparency in Utah schools.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, talks at Ensign Elementary School in Salt Lake City on May 16, 2017. Fillmore is proposing new legislation aimed at increasing curriculum transparency in Utah schools. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Proposed Utah legislation debated Wednesday would require public schools to make all instructional materials used in social sciences courses public.

One legislator told an interim legislative committee he also wants the state to prohibit teachers from "forcing a student to agree with or otherwise adhere to" certain points of view on controversial political topics.

The new rules proposed by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, come after more than a year of controversy in the state over the alleged teaching in public schools of critical race theory, which according to the American Bar Association, recognizes "that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant."

The theory also acknowledges "that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism," according to the American Bar Association.

The Utah Legislature passed a resolution co-sponsored by Fillmore this spring during an "extraordinary" special session that urged the Utah Board of Education to make rules forbidding teaching of the theory.

Fillmore did not specify critical race theory as the impetus for his proposals Wednesday, but pointed to feedback over the last year from parents regarding the teaching of social studies issues in schools.

He acknowledged there are "strong opinions" on both sides of the debate.

"It should not be the Legislature's role to dictate what gets taught in classrooms, what materials get taught in classrooms," Fillmore said, emphasizing that school districts and parents should make those calls together.

But the Legislature should "create an avenue" to ensure the process is open and transparent and "allows for parental feedback on the front end rather than the back," Fillmore said.

He said parents should know if their students are being taught "controversial content."

He added that he doesn't want to control what schools can teach, but "I do want to have school districts adopt a policy on what supplementary content can be used and how it can be used."

Fillmore wants to create a working group including members of Utah's Education Interim Committee to work on the issue over the next month and return with potential legislation in November.

Some lawmakers on the committee contended the proposed legislation seeks to do too much.

According to a document shared in the meeting by Fillmore, the legislation he proposes would also:

  • Require the Utah State Board of Education or the local school board to approve instructional materials before its first use and give the public at least 30 days to submit comment.
  • Require the state auditor to audit the public school system for compliance each year.
  • Require public school students to take courses on U.S. history, American civics, and U.S. and Utah government.
  • Mandate an assessment of the requirement for public high school students to complete a basic civics test with questions from the test used for those seeking U.S. citizenship.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said she'd be interested in joining the working group that will consider and modify the legislation.

"Because I feel like there is transparency starting with, we set standards at the state board," Moss noted, and districts set curriculum based on those standards.

Teachers then workshop their curriculum, Moss said, explaining that she did that for 30 years as an English teacher.

The representative added that all she taught in her classroom came from an approved list chosen by a selection committee. Teachers also worked with engaged parents "who cared about their kids' education and got great educations, and kids still do in public schools," Moss said.

She believes the problematic teachers "illustrate, in some cases, bad judgment on the part of the teacher, and that teacher should be dealt with."

"It seems like it's grown to something that's looking at the whole system as being flawed, and it's not," Moss said.

Some also questioned whether it's wise to add one more thing to teachers' plates, as many are already overwhelmed. They also need to follow copyright laws, which often block them from sharing textbooks online.

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said the Utah Board of Education supports the transparency aspect of the proposed legislation but wants to work with Fillmore on its other aspects.

She said parents across the state commonly reach out about transparency issues, and their desires fall into four categories: more transparency, thoroughly-vetted curriculum materials, the use of only age-appropriate content and political neutrality.

Dickson said the school board wants to allow local school boards to maintain control.

No action was taken on the proposal Wednesday, and the legislation will be discussed in a future working group.

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