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In our opinion: State Board's policy expands choice but may limit opportunity

"When it comes to educating Utah’s rising generation, state leaders should find a balance between radical choice and rigid requirements. The Utah State Board of Education’s recent decision to remove certain courses from the state’s middle school core requ
"When it comes to educating Utah’s rising generation, state leaders should find a balance between radical choice and rigid requirements. The Utah State Board of Education’s recent decision to remove certain courses from the state’s middle school core requirements fails to strike this balance."
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When it comes to educating Utah’s rising generation, state leaders should find a balance between rigid requirements and radical choice. The Utah State Board of Education’s recent decision to remove certain courses from the state’s middle-school core requirements fails to strike this balance.

Last week, the Board of Education voted 9-6 to remove physical education, the arts, health and career and college readiness from the core course requirements for Utah middle schools. The courses will still be offered, and local districts and charter schools may still require them, but now it’s likely that many more may not.

There’s certainly an argument for providing parents who already expose their children to, say, the arts with the ability to opt out of what would otherwise be a required course. But taking these courses out of the required curriculum means that students and parents may have to opt in to taking a course such as health — an area that’s unquestionably important during a time of significant physical and mental transition for adolescents.

Noting that many students in seventh and eighth grade struggle with mental health issues, drugs, self-harm and even suicide, board member Brittney Cummins pointed out that health is a vital subject, but she observed, “I don’t see health as being one of those places that students say, ‘Yeah, sign me up for that class.’"

And that’s the fundamental problem with the new measure; it’s the kind of policy that appeals to highly engaged parents — such as the parents serving on the Utah State Board of Education. These parents take an active role in crafting their children’s educational experiences, matching up their interests with semester course loads. But, for children with busy or less-engaged parents, this may mean some students simply don’t receive the breadth of education that’s required for meaningful participation in the economy and the community.

For example, Utah, along with the rest of the nation, has concerning levels of obesity, and by no longer requiring physical education the state risks making it worse. Gym, after all, is the kind of class that is usually enjoyed the least by those who might need it the most.

There’s no doubt this will alleviate some of the stresses on Utah school districts and charter schools, and we have long advocated for increased choice and innovation at all levels of Utah’s educational system. However, when it comes to basic statewide education standards during the crucial middle-school years, there should be stronger reasons for removing important elements of a broad-based education from the state’s required core curriculum.

A more sensible approach is to insert flexibility into the system by making it easier for parents and students to opt out of core courses like the arts and physical education. As the education debate is increasingly defined by advocates for greater choice or advocates for uniform standards, it’s more important than ever for differing opinions to find common cause before putting in place policies that affect the whole state.