Despite objections from many educators and the leaders of both teachers unions in the state, a bill that would allow parents to scrutinize instructional materials for all grade levels and subject matters in Utah’s public schools before approval for the classroom was passed by committee Thursday.
The measure, SB114, has drawn vocal opposition from teachers but strong support from conservative parent groups since it was introduced. That showdown played out during the first debate.
“Teachers are taking a stand,” said Brad Asay, president of the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents several thousand educators here. “They’ve had enough. Teachers are done being in the center of political issues.”
Asay said educators have been overburdened and underappreciated, especially with the pandemic. But the latest crusade to dictate what they teach, he said, is too much. Asay said the debate has left many teachers wanting to leave rather than be micromanaged by state lawmakers and what he called a “minority group” of vocal parents.
But parents pushed back, saying they have a right to review what their kids are being taught.
“We want to be looking at these things before they’re in our children’s schools,” said one dad, Aaron Bullen, who has students in Alpine School District.
Under the bill proposed by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, a Republican from South Jordan who owns a charter school management company, every public K-12 school district and charter in Utah would be required to follow a set process for approving instructional materials.
First, a district would need to post all main materials, like textbooks and videos, online for parents to review or recommend alternatives. Those must be available for at least 30 days.
Then, a district’s school board would need to hold a public meeting on those items. Only after that would a school board be able to vote to adopt the materials for use in the classroom.
Fillmore distinguishes in the bill a difference between “instructional materials,” which would have to go through this process, and “supplemental materials,” which would not. The latter, he said, are items a teacher may choose to use to enhance the approved curriculum, such as a newspaper article.
Already, a school district’s instructional materials are required to abide by state standards for what can be taught — set by the Utah State Board of Education (and often overseen by the Utah Legislature, such as with rules on sex education). And there is a database where teachers can see what they have vetted and what meets state law.
Many districts and charters also already have a curriculum committee that includes parents to oversee the process of selecting specific books. And most allow parents to see materials upon request.
Fillmore’s bill is one of two controversial proposals this session targeting curriculum. The other, HB234 from Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, goes a step further, requiring that all curricula and class syllabuses be made available and updated online for public inspection. That has not yet come up in committee, but the Utah Education Association has already started a petition against it.
What teachers say
Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, questioned why the new process from Fillmore was necessary.
“What are we really trying to fix?” he asked. “I think it sends the wrong message that the Legislature is going to continue to micromanage teachers.”
McKell was joined in opposition by Sen. Kathleen Riebe, a Democrat from Cottonwood Heights who has been an educator for 21 years, saying this just adds additional bureaucracy to the process. Still, the bill passed with a 4-2 vote in the Senate Education Committee, with Fillmore on the committee
Fillmore said the bill just adds more transparency.
“This bill does not touch what teachers do inside their classroom,” Fillmore added.
The senator said it would create a standard process for all districts, where curriculum approval currently varies. When asked by The Salt Lake Tribune, he said it would not apply retroactively to instructional materials already being used.
But teachers still worried it would be a slippery slope, meant to allow anyone to question how they’re doing their jobs and silencing controversial materials.
Riebe said she could easily see the bill being used to tax teachers to share all materials they use. Already, the earlier iteration of the bill specifically targeted social studies curricula, for instance, and Fillmore previously sponsored the legislation to ban teaching critical race theory in Utah schools.
“It’s ultimately going to put more pressure on teachers to put all this information out publicly when your lessons plans can change very quickly and dynamically,” said Jayrod Garrett, a teacher at DaVinci Academy in Ogden.
He said he’s confused why parents want to be involved with curriculum materials when many don’t show up to or engage with parent-teacher conferences, where educators are happy to share what they’re teaching. But now, he said, it feels like they want to jump in and tell teachers what they can or can’t do.
Terra Cooper, a former teacher in Davis School District who still substitutes, said it’s frustrating that parents are being put above educators in approving curricula when this is what teachers went to school for.
Cooper questioned lawmakers’ motives: “What are you willing to do to help our teachers instead of finding ways to make their jobs harder?”
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, urged the committee to recognize the burdens teachers are already facing with the pandemic and not add more unnecessary requirements. One mom added that if parents are that worried about what their kids are learning, they should home-school.
Feedback from parents
Of the 19 speakers who got a turn at the microphone before comments were cut off, though, 13 spoke in favor of the bill. Many of those are a part of Utah Parents United, a right-wing coalition of roughly 4,000 parents that push for conservative policies in schools.
Nichole Mason, the president of the organization, said she has five kids in Davis School District and despite requesting to see the curriculum there related to anti-bias lessons, she was denied access.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely if we allowed parents to see this before it’s rolled out?” she asked.
Other parents called the process “more diplomatic.” Stan Rasmussen with the conservative Sutherland Institute said: “It is common sense to require that districts have a process for reviewing curriculum.”
When challenged by McKell, though, on whether Rasmussen has recently been to his own local school board meeting to ask about the process, Rasmussen acknowledged he had not. Several other parent speakers questioned by McKell said the same.
Others, though, said they’ve tried to engage and been pushed out and not provided materials.
Fillmore said that’s what concerns him, and he wants to strengthen the partnership between parents and teachers. The bill goes next to the full Senate.