Utah senator’s education proposals: too much or too little?
By kristen moulton
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Dec 25 2013 01:01AM
Sen. Aaron Osmond made national headlines last summer when he suggested Utah get rid of its compulsory-education law.
Now that he has tweaked his proposal to amend rather than end compulsory education, the central theme of the South Jordan Republican’s ideas emerge: It’s all about parental rights.
The state would be hands-off home-schooling families and those sending their children to private schools.
But parents who want public schools — traditional and charter — to educate their children would have to sign contracts spelling out their rights as well as responsibilities.
While educators and other Utah residents praise Osmond for opening a conversation about parents’ roles, his proposals also are being called unworkable, heavy-handed and wrongheaded.
"It’s ludicrous," says Carol Anne Schuster Evans, a school psychologist. "Your parental rights are trumped by your child’s right to a future."
Shon Harris, a student at the University of Utah, says Osmond’s "heart’s in the right place," but exempting home-schooled and private students from any standards is "almost like a pass to do their worst." Such students, he said, would be at a disadvantage to their peers in college.
"The discussion is worth having," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation at the Utah State Office of Education.
"Is there a way the system can shift some responsibility back to parents? Is there a way that can be done without making the cure worse than the disease?"
Three new tactics • Osmond earlier this month said he will propose three bills in the upcoming legislative session.
"We have to have choice and accountability," Osmond said. "We have to shift the culture."
The bills are still being written, but Osmond described the goals in a post at utahpolicy.com and in an interview.
The first would require parents to pick one of three paths for their child: public, private or home school. The law would require parents to fill out an affidavit at the local district when their child turns 6 and any time the family moves to a new district.
If parents select private or home school and stick to that choice, the state will never have any say over curriculum, classroom time or testing of their children.
It’s not the government’s job to educate every child, he said, but to provide a free education for every child who wants one.
If parents choose to use what Osmond calls a public resource — schools — his second and more controversial proposed law would kick in.
Such families would have to sign a formal contract saying the parents accept and will follow the district’s attendance policies; support their child in completing homework; attend all scheduled parent-teacher conferences; respect teachers by supporting classroom discipline; and agree to pay for tutoring or extra schooling to help their child if he or she falls behind.
A parent who fails to file the affidavit when a child turns 6 or who violates the contract by, say, not paying for the school tutor, could be prosecuted under Utah’s compulsory-education law.
On the flip side, the state would issue a parent bill of rights.
It would allow parents to hold an immature child back a grade; influence the selection of a child’s teacher; decide when an absence is excused; have flexible scheduling for parent-teacher conferences; and enable a child to test out of subjects to graduate early.
Osmond’s third bill would end the state’s requirement that schools provide 180 days (and 990 hours) of instruction. Instead, parents and districts would decide how much time kids spend in class.
The current system, he said, "focuses on butt-in-the-seat," rather than student outcomes. "We all know, as parents, our kids spend hours in class [when] they are not doing anything productive," said Osmond, who has three children still in public school and two graduates of public schools.
One of his key motives, Osmond said, is to help teachers who lament the high number of aloof parents.
If it takes a financial pinch — in the form of tutoring or remediation fees — to wake up parents, then schools ought to charge it, he said.
"When they [parents] realize there is a consequence," he said, "they will focus."
Stumbling blocks • Spanish Fork teacher John Allan said that while many of Osmond’s ideas seem good "on paper," they could prove unworkable.
For instance, who will punish parents who don’t attend parent-teacher conferences?
"Is there going to be any teeth in this thing? Who is going to be the gatekeeper?" asked Allan, who is temporarily working in the Nebo district office.
And what if a parent protests that it’s the teacher’s fault the child can’t perform up to snuff, and that he or she shouldn’t have to pay for remediation?
"Ultimately a lot of this would end up on the principal’s plate," Allan warned, "and principals are already overwhelmed."
Letting parents have a say over which teacher their child gets, he added, could be a logistical nightmare in the lower grades.
Principals often separate children for good reasons, and they try to strike a balance of high- and low-performing students in each class, Allan said. If parents pick the teachers, it could skew the final results each teacher is judged on: the academic progress of their students.
Lear, the attorney in the state education office, also doubts giving schools a judicial recourse for parents who violate the contract would work.
A new University of Utah study on school truancy found inconsistent enforcement of the laws already on the books.
That’s been the education office’s experience as well, Lear said. "We haven’t had consistent support from district attorneys on compulsory attendance," Lear said. "Some of them will not be bothered. They’ve got serious criminals to deal with."
Tami Pyfer, the new president of the Utah State Board of Education, said Osmond’s proposals would mean little change for home-schooling families.
While Utah law says home-schoolers must study the same subjects as public schools and attend school for the same amount of time, the parents do not have to keep any records of instruction or attendance, nor do they need any certification to teach.
"A lot of people are going to be surprised at how little is required of private or home-schooled students," Pyfer said.
But while she praised Osmond for seeking comment well in advance of the legislative session, Pyfer is dubious about legislating parental involvement.
"To tell parents, ‘Do this or else!’ No one responds well to that," Pyfer said.
"If this starts the conversation, that’s great," the Logan resident said. "I just worry about forcing those partnerships and being seen as heavy-handed."