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Utah school board votes against repealing education equity rule — for now

Board has retained the 2021 equity rule but will take up possible amendments during its Feb. 1 meeting

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The Utah State Board of Education is pictured in Salt Lake City on July 26, 2022.

The Utah State Board of Education is pictured in Salt Lake City on July 26, 2022. The Piute County School District is set to move to a four-day school week next year after the Utah State Board of Education last week approved a request for the transition.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Utah State Board of Education voted Thursday to retain its education equity rule by one vote.

A motion to repeal the rule was defeated on an 8-7 vote; however, the board voted to resume deliberations on possible amendments at its next regular meeting on Feb. 1.

School superintendents and school boards, as well as the Utah Education Association, urged the state board to retain the rule.

The board’s Advisory Committee for Equity of Educational Services for Students also had urged retaining R277-328, which was unanimously approved by the state school board in 2021 after intense debate.

The rule defines educational equity as “acknowledging that all students are capable of learning and distributing resources to provide equal opportunities based upon the needs of each individual student.” The rule requires school districts to provide equity training to educators to make sure that happens.

According to the rule, educational equity means “acknowledging that all students are capable of learning and distributing resources to provide equal opportunities based upon the needs of each individual student. Equitable resources include funding, programs, policies, initiatives and supports that recognize each student’s unique background and school context to guarantee that all students have access to high-quality education.”

Board members were split among three tracks: to keep the rule, amend it or repeal it. Repealing the rule was proposed by board members Joseph Kerry, Emily Green and Christina Bogges.

Molly Hart, a board vice chairwoman and a school administrator, said repealing the rule would leave educators without guidance on educational equity.

“My question is still, what are you replacing it with? Because I don’t see a world where we stay silent on the issue. I’d really like to get to some actual pragmatic solutions. I think we all know how divided our constituencies are. That’s pretty clear. It’s pretty clear everybody has an opinion,” Hart said.

Jennie Earl, the board’s other vice chairwoman, said the board created the rule to include the recommendations of state lawmakers who met in special session in 2021 in the wake of the national debate on teaching critical race theory in schools.

“We’ve provided Rule 328 and I voted for it because it had those components that made it better than what we had before,” Earl said.

In September, Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-North Tooele, and Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, sent a letter to school board leadership stating their “profound concern regarding the lack of meaningful action after the passing of HB427” during the Utah Legislature’s 2023 general session.

HB427, sponsored by Jimenez, was titled “Individual Freedom in Public Education.” It prohibits educators from subjecting a student to instruction that “forces” them to change a sincerely held belief, value or standard taught in the student’s home or attempts to persuade a student to a point of view that is inconsistent with principles of individual freedom.

Some of the bill’s language mirrors Florida’s controversial “anti-woke law” known as the Individual Freedom Act.

HB427 requires everything taught in Utah schools to be consistent with “certain principles of individual freedom.” It prohibits teaching that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” because of their “race, sex, or sexual orientation.”

Earl said HB427 “is the progression. It’s based on principles. It’s not based on ideas, so to speak, it is a principled document so it is a progression. It improves upon it,” referring to the state board’s rule.

While addressing the state school board Thursday morning, Jimenez suggested that there was an “understanding” between leaders of the House of Representatives and board leadership that the board would repeal the rule outright without considering any amendments.

“We are grateful that leadership has supported a repeal vote as well as working with House leadership on the understanding that there will not be an amendment, that there will be a full repeal vote,” he said.

“The House understood that a full repeal is in order to be compliant with state code.” said Jimenez.

Later in the day, State School Board Chairman Jim Moss told the board that he had met with several legislators on both sides of the issue, as well as many parents, parent groups, educators and board members.

“At no time have I ever made some agreement that this body would simply repeal. I could not do that. I would not do that. I never made an agreement (that) there would be no amendments. I could not, would not,” Moss said.

Thursday afternoon, Hart read a communication from House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, that said, in part, that the state school board was a valued partner to the Utah Legislature.

“During the 2023 legislative session, the Legislature passed HB427, Individual Freedom in Public Education. There have been some concerns raised about whether or not the board rules comply with the legislation. We encourage the board to evaluate, ensure compliance and resolve any conflict. We appreciate your continued partnership and look forward to working with the board,” Schultz wrote.

Hart said the Legislature’s position “is not one of ‘repeal.’ It is not one of ‘keep.’ It is simply to direct us to do our job, and that is to evaluate to ensure compliance and resolve any conflict. So let’s be clear about what the message (was) that was sent from the Legislature,” Hart said.

One parent, Curtis Linton, a white parent of two Black children, told the board that as he has observed his children’s experiences in Utah public schools, he’s discovered “it’s not set up the same for every student.”

Approaching Thursday’s meeting, he wondered why the board’s rule is so contentious and up for repeal at this time.

“Hearing Rep. Jimenez, I now understand why. This is political. There’s fear. Honestly, I’m kind of troubled by what he said. It was a threat to you as a board from the Legislature, not based upon the research that establishes that educational equity works, not based upon the superintendents within the state, the school boards within the state, the public comment that you’ve received saying, ‘Please keep this rule in place,’” said Linton.

“Education equity has become politicized. Why the fear? I don’t quite understand. Educational equity is about equal opportunity for every single student to succeed,” he said.

Utahn Aaron Bullen said he was “excited” at the prospect of repealing R277-328.

Bullen said state code prohibits “teaching children that they were born racist, but (R277-) 328 does not, which put the two in direct conflict with each other.”

Board member Carol Lear said the board’s legal counsel had advised the board that the board rule and state law do not conflict.

However, two portions of the law are not in the board rule, said board member Cindy Davis.

Board member Brent J. Strate responded, “I want to show a good faith effort to the Legislature. I don’t want it said that we ignored it. ... We can improve” the rule, he said.

Lear said the unanimous support of the existing board rule by the state’s school boards and superintendents was compelling.

“It was a unanimous vote. ... There were no dissenters. It was a very strong message from our partner, who we always say we listen to at the local level,” Lear said.

“I think if we really say we believe those people at the local level and that they need this rule, and this rule helps, then I think we should listen to them,” she said.