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State School Board OKs rule that clarifies what Utah schools can’t teach about race, equity

Betty Sawyer, left, a supporter of critical race theory, exchanges views with a group of women opposed to the theory outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on May 19.
Betty Sawyer, left, a supporter of critical race theory, exchanges views with a group of women opposed to the theory, after a protest organized by the Utah Educational Equity Coalition outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on May 19. The president of Utah’s largest teacher association urged the Utah State Board of Education Thursday to “own” its position of general control of the Utah public education system as the board prepares to address educational equity in schools and educator standards.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After more than four hours of debate, and months of discussion in Utah and across the nation about the controversial critical race theory, Utah teachers now have a rule to clarify what concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be taught in public schools.

The Utah State Board of Education considered 29 amendments to the proposed rule Thursday night, but only seven of them passed. The board’s unanimous vote was “nothing short of an absolute miracle.” said Vice Chairwoman Cindy Davis.

The rule also establishes training protocols for educators who teach the subject matter.

The board action comes on the heels of Utah lawmakers passing resolutions less than a month ago that encouraged the board to ban the teaching of “harmful” concepts, joining other state legislatures taking various action against the teaching of critical race theory.

Critical race theory, according to the American Bar Association, recognizes “that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant.” It also acknowledges that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions.

Feeling pressure from state lawmakers

While the resolutions passed by Utah lawmakers were nonbinding, at least one board member remarked that despite the board’s earlier work on educational equity, “the Legislature has intervened. What they sent us was not binding but it’s not really nonbinding because they’ve told us, and I’ve heard it directly, that if we don’t take care of it, they will,” said board member Brent Strate.

The rule passed by the school board mirrors the resolutions passed during last month’s extraordinary session of the Legislature. Neither the lawmakers’ resolutions nor the board rule uses the words critical race theory or critical race theory concepts.

The board rule prohibits instruction or professional training by a school district or charter school “that promotes or endorses that a student or educator’s sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or membership in any other protected class is inherently superior or inferior to another sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other protected class.”

It also precludes instruction that “a student or educator bears responsibility for the past actions of individuals from the same sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other protected class as the student or educator.”

Instruction that a student or educator’s sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or membership in any other protected class determines the content of their character including values, morals or personal ethics is also not permissible.

One proposed change that would have sanctioned teachers who violate the board rule by teaching critical race theory garnered only one vote, that of the amendment’s sponsor board member Natalie Cline.

Cline said the language was needed to stave off “a national movement” among teachers “that feel like they should have a right to teach actual critical race theory principles.”

Cline claimed seven Utah teachers have signed the pledge.

“I think there needs to be something in place for teachers that would intentionally go against the rule or the law,” she said.

But the amendment failed to get the support of even one more board member. Board member Jennie Earl seconded the motion to bring the amendment before the board but in doing so, expressed her opposition.

Board member Molly Hart, who is a middle school principal, spoke against the proposal.

“So much of this directly speaks to ethical violations on the part of individual teachers rather than the part of some larger movements so I just don’t think that this is necessary or appropriate,” she said.

Is such teaching happening here?

Earlier in the day, Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews urged the State School Board to “own” its position of general control of the public education system as vested under Article X of the Utah Constitution.

Matthews cautioned that by passing the rule, the board would be “ceding some of your authority and positions to other entities who ... don’t necessarily have the accurate terminology and information about what’s actually happening in schools, especially with regards to discussions about race and racism.”

Moreover, they “have not sought input as to the chilling impact and consequences of prohibiting the teaching of something that isn’t being taught,” she said, referring to critical race theory.

The resolutions are promulgating “not just unnecessary policy but, but bad policy. ... Where does that stop?”

But others who addressed the board Thursday said educators do not want guidance on teaching diversity, equity and inclusion.

Jimmy May told the board he represented teachers who feared retaliation if they spoke out themselves, reading a statement from the educators but he did not identify the school district.

It said in part “Our job is to teach children to excel at reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills, not how to become social justice warriors. We speak for many in our profession and asking that you eliminate guidance for any teacher training related to equity, diversity and inclusion based on the toxic, racist tenets of critical race theory.”

Elyse Arrington, an educator who attended Utah schools and earned a graduate degree from Columbia University, said refusing to teach students the “true and complete history” of the United States will place them at a disadvantage.

“Straight up banning the discussion of these topics because we fear it doesn’t look or feel good, is not only unconstitutional, it’s delusional,” she said.

“I remember feeling like a complete idiot in my very first class at Columbia University. I had never been taught about privilege, let alone anything having to do with systemic racism. I’m not sure if that was due to a lack of understanding on my teachers’ part or certain rules and stipulations kept them from doing so. Regardless, I felt like I was emerging from a time capsule buried 40 years prior, like I had escaped a strange commune that read books upside down or something,” Arrington said.

One mom said one of the benefits of the pandemic was that she got a front-row seat to the history her children were learning in school.

“Talking about racism didn’t teach them that one race is better or worse than another. They didn’t become insecure or feel bad about themselves because they are white. They simply got an accurate, comprehensive education and learned how to be challenged and become critical thinkers,” said Hailey Anderson.

“Kindergartners are being called the N-word at school and having their natural hair made fun of. If Black children are old enough to experience racism, I feel my white children are old enough to learn about it. I want teachers to continue to have this freedom to teach about these issues and not be censored or silenced. I don’t want schools that only work for my children. I want inclusive, equitable, diverse schools that support all children,” she said.

Another speaker, Katie Johnson, said the meaning of the words equity, diversity and inclusivity “have been changed and weaponized to lull us into passivity. (Critical race theory) is an academic discipline asserting that our great nation was founded on white supremacy and oppression and that these forces still play a critical role right under our noses. ... (The theory) has infiltrated many government agencies, is tearing apart our military and has corrupted higher education.”

Johnson added: “This cancer has now found its way into our high schools, junior highs and grade schools, turning kids against one another, against their parents and against their own country.”