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Utah lawmaker calls for end of compulsory education

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Let’s let them choose it, let’s not force them to do it. I think that’s when you start seeing the shift. – Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan

SALT LAKE CITY — Compulsory education laws have resulted in parents disengaging themselves from the responsibility to oversee the education of their children and have caused schools to falter under the burden of being all things to all people.

Those points are among the arguments made by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, in an article posted Friday on the blog of the Utah State Senate, in which Osmond called for the end of compulsory education in the state.

"Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate, and even care for their child, is primarily the responsibility of the public school system," Osmond wrote. "As a result, our teachers and schools have been forced to become surrogate parents, expected to do everything from behavioral counseling, to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex education, as well as ensuring full college and career readiness."

Osmond wrote further that in the current state of public education, teachers do not receive meaningful support from parents, while at the same time parents become frustrated that schools are not able to meet the individual needs of their children. Osmond told the Deseret News that there is a need to shift the public mindset to viewing learning as an opportunity as opposed to an obligation, while also reinforcing the idea of liberty and choice.

"Let’s let them choose it, let’s not force them to do it," he said. "I think that’s when you start seeing the shift."

State School Board member Leslie Castle said she agrees that schools have become burdened with nonacademic responsibilities, like daily nutrition, basic health screenings and behavioral counseling. But the reality of Utah's increasingly diverse population is that many children require those services.

"We live in a society where some children require help beyond the ability of their parents," she said. "Those students don’t deserve to be punished, they don’t deserve to be disqualified."

She said because of compulsory education, teachers and educators are typically the first to see evidence of trouble at home, from abuse to malnourishment. Without the requirement to attend school, or if nonacademic services were removed from the public education system, it would be necessary for the state to create some other form of publicly funded service to fill that role.

"Right now, every single day, somebody is checking on these children in the state of Utah," she said. "Somebody is seeing them, somebody is a watchful eye."

Engaged parents frustrated with public schooling also have several options aside from their neighborhood school, she said, such as charter schools, private schools or home schooling. If the requirement to attend a school of some kind were dropped, Castle said, it would likely be the first-grader without a ride to school or the teenage victim of bullying who would fail to arrive in the classroom.

Osmond said he is not advocating that students stop attending school, but instead that the culture be changed from an obligation to a choice. He gave the example of kindergarten, which nearly all children attend despite no requirement to do so.

"When the choice is available to them, they’re choosing kindergarten 92 percent of the time," he said. "We have to shift the culture more than just the process."

But Castle said ending compulsory education would affect far more than just culture. She also worried the tone of Osmond's article was indicative of the general sentiment in Utah's Legislature, which she said has continued to place responsibility for student success on teachers and schools while failing to provide adequate support or funding.

Utah's public education system is currently the lowest-funded in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending.

"The same could be said about the Legislature that (Osmond) is saying about parents, that the Legislature has completely disengaged themselves," she said.

Osmond said there are a number of questions that still need to be addressed, such as tweaks to the way teachers are evaluated based on student performance if students were no longer required to attend school. He also said the nonacademic services provided by schools should not necessarily be done away with, but the way those community needs are addressed should be re-evaluated.

Osmond said he plans to present legislation on compulsory education during the upcoming session. He said he will be meeting with the Utah Education Association, State Board of Education, local school boards and educators to discuss the potential bill and welcomes feedback from the community on the subject.

"I think the key is that as a community, it is our responsibility to provide access to those in need with help and support," he said. "What I’m hoping to accomplish with this bill is to restore the trust and respect and professionalism of teachers as a facility of learning and not as a social worker."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood