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Utah teachers now have rule that clarifies what they cannot teach about diversity, equity and inclusion

James Sullivan speaks in opposition to critical race theory education during a Utah State Board of Education meeting in Salt Lake City.
James Sullivan speaks in opposition to critical race theory education during a Utah State Board of Education meeting in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After months of discussion nationally and in Utah, including an extraordinary session of the Utah Legislature, Utah teachers now have a rule that clarifies what concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be taught in public schools.

The Utah State Board of Education voted 13-1 Thursday to allow its administrative rule on educational equity to go into effect.

The board passed the first motion on the matter, which meant it did not consider board member Natalie Cline’s 40-page document that proposed extensive amendments to the rule that was unanimously approved by the board in June. The proposed amendments included a list of more than 100 terms and concepts, that if taught through the framework of critical race theory, would violate the board rule.

Some of the terms included social emotional learning, inclusion, social change, empathy and free radical therapy. Cline voted in opposition.

Four pages of amendments introduced by board member Jennie Earl were likewise not considered.

Board member Brent Strate, a recently retired high school educator, said the board’s deliberations on the rule began with a discussion on educational equity back in January.

“I think maybe that has been lost in regards to that. We have school starting. Teachers need to be in a position where they know what they have. ... I think this rule gives protections. I think it’s important that the training start being developed so that teachers have firm, concrete examples of what is appropriate and what is not,” Strate said.

While the board deliberations on education rules started eight months ago, the matter took on greater urgency after state lawmakers called themselves into special session in May and passed a nonbinding resolution on critical race theory. The resolutions called on the State School Board to ban what lawmakers termed “harmful” critical race theory concepts.

Between the board’s rule-making process and a public hearing conducted on the administrative rule, R277-328, the board heard several hours of public testimony, debated among themselves for four hours on the rule considering nearly 30 amendments, and received what one board member said was at least 1,000 emails from members of the public.

Board member Carol Lear said she was bothered “that there was the perception that this is something of a popularity contest,” that sending board members thousands of emails would persuade board members to make wholesale changes to the rule.

“It’s not like voting for Love Island or voting on American Idol. This is the board has a responsibility to support the law, respect the law, and it’s not a strictly majority rule kind of a process,” she said.

After a lengthy process, the board arrived at “a rather balanced rule,” said board vice chairwoman Cindy Davis.

“If this rule were a bad rule or bad for children, then I never would have voted for it in the first place,” she said.

The board received public comment on the rule earlier in the day, with some participants urging adoption of Cline’s amendments. Still others asked the board to let the rule go into effect as written.

Sophia Anderson, a mother of four children from Salt Lake City, said she’s been trying “to figure out and connect the dots about where the poison of CRT, equity and Marxist ideologies are coming from,” she said.

After submitting public records requests, she said she discovered “our children are being sold out and you aren’t doing it,” referring to board members and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.

Anderson, who continued to speak after her allotted time, was approached by a state trooper providing security at the meeting and wrapped up her remarks without incident, but said she would publish online the records she had obtained.

James Sullivan, who identified himself as a Black conservative, said if the board believes critical race theory is the way to empower the Black community, “you need to do more research, and you need to actually find out what is affecting the Black community.”

Dickson, who addressed the board during her monthly report, said she had spent a great deal of time over the summer meeting with families who had questions and concerns about education equity and concepts of critical race theory.

Dickson said the State School Board now has a statewide contract with Canvas, which should make it easier for parents to see the content and materials their children’s teachers are using.

She said she had seen “some samples” where teachers have attached links to material that may not be linked to a state standard or was not age appropriate. State School Board employees need to carefully vet what is sent to teachers, and educators themselves need to make sure “they thoroughly go through whatever that material is,” she said.

She continued, “I think if we could get our teachers to stay politically neutral, that it would be most helpful.”

If a teacher is passionate about a political candidate or position, it can alienate some children and their families, Dickson said.

“If there’s something that crops up that a teacher tries to put their perspective into the classroom for influence, it can alienate a lot of children. So the key is for our teachers to have those rich wonderful conversations but stay politically neutral. I think that goes for religion and all sorts of things, just staying in that neutral zone,” she said.