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Utah parent 'curriculum cops' don't want the job

Published March 18, 2014 11:49 am

Education • Parents asked to review curriculum complaints at session's end.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Brad Caldwell took a week off work. Alyson Williams had to recruit four babysitters to care for her children. Amy Farnsworth lived away from her Vernal family for a week.

The 15 volunteer parents who spent a week last year reviewing 10,000 Utah test questions were suddenly — in the last minutes of the 2014 Legislature — handed a far broader job: investigating complaints from parents about curriculum and materials used statewide.

SB257 sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said his idea was to ease some Utah parents' fears about the state's new academic standards, which are based on Common Core State Standards.

"I believe there's so much mistrust with Utah's core and instructional materials that to have that same parent panel review those things would be beneficial in getting to the bottom of it," Stephenson said.

But at least some of the volunteer parents want Gov. Gary Herbert to veto the bill.

They say they don't feel they have the time to review complaints on top of test questions, and some feel it's not their place.

Caldwell, a committee member from Clearfield, said on Monday he jokingly sent the governor's office a $100,000 invoice for consulting services based on the demands of the bill.

Williams, from Spanish Fork, added, "We spent a lot of hours away from our families reviewing the assessment items, and I don't know how we could possibly, just the 15 parents, be representative in reviewing curriculum and things like that."

Stephenson, however, said Monday he doesn't anticipate committee members having to spend too much more time reviewing complaints. He said complaints will still go to local school boards to work out first.

"In most cases, probably 90 percent of cases, the school boards will satisfy those concerns, but in those rare instances when people feel those materials are inappropriate for their children, they should have an appeal body to make their case to," Stephenson said.

Stephenson said the committee wouldn't necessarily have to meet to go over all complaints but could instead review them individually at home.

Still, some members of the committee worry about the additional task.

"The bill is taking some folks who volunteered to do one job," Caldwell said, "and demanding they do something different."

Farnsworth, a committee member from Vernal, said she's personally not even sure she's qualified to answer specific complaints about curriculum.

"I just can't imagine anyone feeling like they could completely answer every parent complaint in a valid and reassuring way," Farnsworth said.

She also wondered whether having the committee review complaints would make a difference to those opposed to the new standards.

For years, state education leaders have tried to persuade Common Core foes that the standards are good for kids, but to no avail. Many Common Core opponents are still wary about this spring's upcoming state testing tied to the Core, known as SAGE, even after the committee weeded through all the questions.

"If the higher-ups that have all that information and knowledge can't get those questions answered for parents, then how are we supposed to?" Farnsworth said.

Stephenson, however, said he sees no better group of people to review curriculum complaints than the committee, which is already familiar with the standards.

"It will be an independent body, not people who have a vested interest, not those who are defending the system but parents who are, many of them, actually critical of the system," Stephenson said. "That's a perfect panel to hear complaints and then give a response concerning those complaints."

But some committee members feel there are simply too many problems with the bill, including that it was rushed.

The bill didn't have its first hearing until the last two weeks of the session, and then had one Senate floor vote and one House floor vote — a path that skipped some of the typical steps.

Stephenson said it was heard so late in the session simply because it took a long time for bill drafters to get to it and because the education committee was bogged down hearing other bills.

The bill's lateness didn't go unnoticed. During the late night debate on the House floor, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, worried about the volume of complaints the committee might receive. And she said, "I think this is awfully broad to be deciding at 20 [minutes] to 12 [a.m.] on the last night of the session."

The bill ultimately passed 38-37 in the House, after all House members were called to the floor for the vote.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who sponsored the bill on the House floor, said he doesn't believe it was voted on so late on purpose.

He said the bill was crafted with the best of intentions — to be transparent with parents about what their children are learning.

"We don't want the rumors or the fear to carry the day," Hughes said. "We want real information and real scrutiny."

The governor has until April 2 to sign or veto bills.

lschencker@sltrib.com