2 bills targeting school curriculum expose rift between Utah educators, parents rights organization


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SALT LAKE CITY — Two bills under consideration by the Utah Legislature that would require school boards and charter school boards to give parents more input in school curriculum decisions have exposed a growing rift between a Utah parents' rights organization and professional educators.

One of the bills, SB114, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, received a favorable recommendation from the Senate Education Committee on Thursday following more than an hour of debate and public comment.

Fillmore said the bill "simply opens a door by which parents and school boards can work together in the adoption of districtwide curriculum." The bill does not address supplemental curriculum selected by individual teachers, he said.

SB114 would require involving parents on the front-end of the curriculum selection process and would allow them to make recommendations to the local board. The proposed curriculum would be available online for the public to review and then the school board would conduct a public hearing before voting whether to adopt it.

But others, like Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said if parents have concerns, there is nothing that prevents them now from addressing them with their local or charter school board.

"Oftentimes we have bills where I think we're looking for a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," said McKell, the lone Republican on the committee to vote against the bill.

Utah Parents United President Nichole Mason speaks in support of SB114, Public School Curriculum Requirements, during a Senate Education Committee meeting in the Senate Building in Salt
Lake City on Thursday.
Utah Parents United President Nichole Mason speaks in support of SB114, Public School Curriculum Requirements, during a Senate Education Committee meeting in the Senate Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Nichole Mason, president of Utah Parents United, said the bill is needed to establish a precedent that parents can review curriculum and programs prior to their approval and release.

Mason said she repeatedly asked to review Davis School District's anti-bias curriculum, which it introduced through a YouTube video.

She sent emails to her local school board representative, her state school board representative and director of the school district's equity department "and the best I could do was they sent me an outline of this great program that they were so proud of that they made a YouTube video about it."

"So my question is, wouldn't it be lovely if we allowed parents to see that before it was rolled out at a districtwide level? If we truly care about reinforcing principles in the home, wouldn't we want parents and taxpayers to see what was going on in the classroom before it happened?" she said.

Utah Parents United, which describes itself as a nonprofit organization run by unpaid parent volunteers that "educates and empowers parents to advocate for their children," pushed back against mask-wearing in schools in spring 2021.

A meeting of the Granite School District Board of Education in May became so unruly that it was abruptly adjourned and nearly a dozen people were charged with disrupting a public meeting, a class B misdemeanor.

Utah Parents United local affiliates have since pushed school districts to remove certain books from school libraries that its members deem objectionable and inappropriate, even pornographic. A local affiliate also took issue with Canyons School District's social-emotional learning curriculum.

Brad Asay, president of the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, urged the committee to vote against SB114.

"We've heard from teachers. The message has been loud and clear. They've had enough. Teachers are done being in the center of political issues. They've had enough with the demands of a vocal minority. Safeguards and transparencies are currently in place in our public schools. Parental and community involvement is also available along with other options for parents and students to guide their child's education. Today teachers are taking a stand, and AFT stands with them," he said.

Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews
speaks in opposition of SB114, Public School Curriculum
Requirements, during a Senate Education Committee meeting in the
Senate Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews speaks in opposition of SB114, Public School Curriculum Requirements, during a Senate Education Committee meeting in the Senate Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, also urged the committee to vote against the bill, noting there are processes in place that take into consideration "the expertise of education professionals together with the interests and the concerns of parents."

Small and rural school districts don't have the capacity to address additional requirements, she said.

"I just ask for you to recognize the toll that's been taken on our educators. Our students are needing us more and more, and the impact and the workload and message of this," she said.

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, spoke in support of the bill.

"This really goes to the heart of our relationship between a school district and their community. This just says, 'Hey, let's make sure that we have a healthy relationship. Let's engage each other in a conversation, make a decision in a very public process' and people will decide whether they like the decision that's made and they can act accordingly," Van Tassell said.

The process should be going on already, he said. "To the extent that it isn't, we need to make sure that it does," he said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, the lone Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said there are processes in place to address curriculum selection and there may be some instances when districts are not following them.

"I agree we do need to be careful with the curriculum we're using. But this is just one more layer of things that has to be done in our schools when we have really big problems that we need to address," such as safety issues, the ongoing pandemic, high rates of suicide and child abuse, said Riebe, who is an educator.

UEA, in a legislative update to its members, also spoke out against a related bill, HB234, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan.

The bill would require all Utah public school teachers to post all learning materials and syllabi for each day of instruction.

"This bill is insulting, burdensome and will not succeed in increasing transparency, but will certainly succeed in driving people from our profession," Matthews wrote.

The UEA has started an online petition to urge defeat of the bill, which was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this week but has not yet been assigned to a committee.

Teuscher said UEA is doing "a real disservice to teachers in spreading misinformation" about the bill. The association is "causing teachers unneeded and undue stress about concerns that they have with the bill that aren't even there," he said.

Teuscher said the intent of HB234 "is to correlate the education that kids are receiving in the classroom with the discussions and education that they're receiving at home at the dinner table. If we can open up transparency and give tools to parents so that they can talk to their kids about what they're learning in the classroom, then they'll get a much more holistic and rounded education."

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