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Utah State Board of Education rule on equity in schools needs changes, groups argue

Posted at 10:12 PM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 05:30:36-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education Thursday listened to organizations and members of the public weigh in on a board-approved rule that would set the standard for teaching equity, diversity, and inclusion in schools.

R277-328 Educational Equity in Schools mandates that school districts offer equity, diversity and inclusion training for teachers, as well as education for students. It leaves the specifics and details beyond that up to individual school districts.

Five organizations formally requested a public hearing on the rule-- The Utah Education Association, Academic Integrity Movement, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition, and Utah Citizens for Positive Change.

Each of those groups, as well as the House Democratic Caucus, was given time to present their thoughts in detail. After that, several members of the public weighed in with shorter comments, in person and virtually.

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Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews explained that she appreciated the State Board of Ed's efforts, and they support the rule. However, she and Dr. Sara Jones, UEA Director Education Excellence and Government Relations, explained why they don't think the rule should take effect as-is.

"Our purpose today is to ensure the rule does not create unintended negative consequences for educators, that may result in license sanctions or disciplinary actions simply for teaching the adopted state core standards or adopted district curriculum," Dr. Jones said.

She said the current version of the rule requires clarifications, and she outlined those for the board.

The Academic Integrity Movement spoke second, with a different take. Jessica Fiveash with AIM outlined three recommendations to the board: Re-draft R277-328, establish an advisory committee that includes local parent groups, and respect the Utah Legislature's House and Senate-passed resolutions that ask the USBE to make sure Critical Race Theory is not taught in classrooms.

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"Keep the focus of the rule on the intent of the House and Senate resolutions, keeping Critical Race Theory out of Utah schools," Fiveash said. "The intent was to ensure each student is taught based on potential and not race."

Mormon Women for Ethical Government joined via Zoom, applauding the USBE for "promoting teacher development." Briawna Hugh also presented two proposed amendments, one of which asks the USBE to clarify that educators won't be burdened with undue accusations.

The Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition also expressed that they think the rule needs amendments.

The organization submitted a list of proposed changes, and add more specific language to the rule.

Dr. Kathleen Christy said their goal is to strengthen core curricular standards reflective of history of all students' background and history.

"Because in Utah, we proudly celebrate our Pioneer heritage," Dr. Christy pointed out. "We want to incorporate ethnic studies into the Utah State core curriculum more explicitly to honor the beautiful diversity that defines Utah's enduring legacy."

The group explained that the rule has a lot of language saying what should not be included in equity profession development and needs to explain should be included.

Utah Citizens for Positive Change similarly asked for the same amendments to the rule as the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition. The group made it clear they were in support of the rule but wanted those modifications.

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The USBE received hundreds and hundreds of comments. Public records reveal 228 pages of public comment, with anywhere from one to five comments taking up each page.

During in-person public comment, many people told personal stories regarding race and history in Utah schools. Some made additional suggestions for amendments to the rule, including asking for protections for educators.

Others thought the rule was too vague and left too much to interpretation.

Several people brought up the controversy around Critical Race Theory, telling the USBE how harmful they thought it was.

USBE Public Relations Director Mark Peterson said the board has never discussed CRT. He said it never has been part of the discussion and is not part of the state standards.

He stressed that the purpose of the rule deals with professional development, and equity in the classroom.

"This would be professional development for teachers in each school district or charter school, would set their own professional development on that," Peterson said. "And it sets up some expectations for what equity and diversity looks like in the classroom."

Peterson explained that the USBE will meet on August 5 to discuss the rule, and all the public comment received.

He described how this can now go one of three ways: The board could decide to pass the rule as-is, choose to make amendments, or go back to the drawing board.

If the board passes the rule, it would take effect August 8.