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Teachers frustrated by Utah lawmaker’s proposal to let parents vet social studies lessons in advance

The idea comes from Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who also sponsored the bill to ban critical race theory in Utah classrooms.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, pictured on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

A Utah lawmaker wants to require that all materials for social science classes in K-12 be vetted and posted online for parents to review in advance — and teachers are pushing back.

Educators say the proposal shows a lack of trust in their judgment. They call it micromanaging. Some argue that it will hamper their ability to teach students about what’s happening in the world in real time. One called it a “classic witch hunt.”

“The ‘witches’ are social studies teachers who dare discuss current events,” said Deborah Gatrell, a teacher at Hunter High in Granite School District, in a post about her concerns.

The controversial idea comes Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, as a continuation of the effort by conservative Utah leaders to control what’s being taught about history in the classroom. Fillmore was also the Senate sponsor on the bill last session that banned discussion of critical race theory in public schools in the state.

The theory is a college-level academic framework that pinpoints racism as the defining feature of the United States. Despite the fear on the political right that it is a threat to the nation’s children, there is no evidence that it is being taught in any public school districts or charters in Utah.

Still, in a draft sheet for his new bill proposal, Fillmore wrote: “In light of controversial topics arising in objectionable ways within the classroom, this proposed legislation seeks to increase transparency across the curriculum and improve curriculum so that issues of controversy are open and in full view of the public before being implemented in the classroom.”

(Lincoln Fillmore) A proposal by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, calls for more parent involvement in reviewing social science curriculum in Utah schools.

During a committee hearing about his ideas Wednesday, Fillmore didn’t detail specifically what topics he was concerned about, saying only that he had issues with teachers’ opinions making their way into lessons on U.S. history and civics. And he wants instruction to be more transparent and open to parents to avoid that.

“Teachers should teach history and not force a student to hold a certain opinion,” he said.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, challenged him, saying: “This makes it sound like social science is opinion-based, which it is not.”

Already, Utah schools are advised to choose their materials from a list approved by the state board of education’s instructional review committee. That committee looks at both textbooks and online reading materials on a yearly basis for every subject and grade level. And there is a database where teachers can see what they have vetted and what meets state law.

In addition to that, the state board and the Legislature sets standards for what children must learn and what classes they must take.

School districts and charters then review that and determine their own curriculum to match. And teachers must meet with committees at their schools, which often include local school board members, to discuss their plans.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, who was an English teacher in Granite School District for 33 years, said every book she taught had to be approved by the district. She believes the current system already ensures that materials in the classroom are appropriate. And parents can bring up concerns to have their child given an alternate assignment, if they disagree.

She also noted that she received many emails in response to Fillmore’s proposal — not one in favor.

Fillmore said people have misunderstood his draft document.

He said the point is not to micromanage what educators teach — because most, he acknowledged, don’t present anything controversial — but to be transparent about it and allow parents the opportunity to bring up concerns. Parents, he said, are supposed to have the primary responsibility in their child’s education, according to state law.

“It’s not my vision at all to interfere with what teachers choose in the classroom,” he said. “This effort is simply about having school boards being publicly transparent.”

His initial ideas include requiring schools to make all instructional materials for social sciences courses available online for public review. And he wants to also require that state board of education or local school boards vet and approve all instructional materials prior to use at least 30 days before they will be discussed in the classroom so parents have time to look at them.

That would make it likely impossible for a teacher to include a news article, for instance, on a current event, such as the protests in 2020 about the treatment of people of color by the police.

Fillmore suggested, too, requiring the state auditor to conduct an annual review of the public school system for compliance.

Among the concerns, said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, is that posting materials online could step on copyright laws. And others worried about adding more burdens on teachers who already have full plates.

“Everything that pops up in the classroom, it’s hard to let parents know at every minute. There are so many rich conversations that happen,” said State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson during the public comment period.

She supports transparency, she said, and agrees with teachers not stating their opinions. She also said there is some concern when a teacher uses an article that may link to something else. A case along those lines came up in Canyons School District recently where the social-emotional learning program linked to a site about dating and sex, eliciting objections from parents.

But Dickson said teachers are currently posting their lessons plans online, and she doesn’t want to hamper discussions about current events that might naturally arise.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, asked for the committee to believe in teachers and know that they have students’ best interests in mind — despite “campaigns to discredit us.”

“We have professional integrity,” she said. “We teach the standards. And we teach accurate and honest history.”

Other teachers weighed in on social media. Gatrell at Hunter High added: “I am aghast that we are thought so unprofessional & incapable by an elected official, suggesting school boards should approve ‘all instructional materials’ ‘30 days in advance.’”

Belinda Talonia, a principal in Alpine School District, added: “Don’t teachers already offer this through disclosure documents, curriculum maps, unit cards, etc. I’m confused … I don’t think you understand what our teachers are already doing.”

Brooke Anderson, a teacher specialist at Jordan School District, said Fillmore seems to be wanting to spend taxpayer dollars “double checking the work of UT teachers.”

Two individuals spoke in favor of the proposed requirements during the meeting. Stan Rasmussen with the conservative Sutherland Institute said he appreciates the effort to teach “fact rather than fear.” And Monica Wilbur, a mother, raised concerns about teachers potentially hiding materials.

“We’re not seeing the transparency that a lot of professionals are claiming exists within the system,” she said.

She said she knows of a case where a student was asked to write a “health and feeling journal” about her emotions. The parent, Wilbur noted, was locked out of the assignment and couldn’t review the instructions. She wants more parent involvement in curriculum.

“This may be inconvenient,” she added, “but it’s absolutely vital.”

Fillmore will move forward with forming an informal group of legislators and educators and parents to talk about his ideas and draft a bill that could be reviewed as soon as next month. The interim education committee advised him to include a representative from the state school board and a local school board.

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