Utah lawmaker drops contentious measure with 30,000 signatures on teacher petition against it

Republican Rep. Jordan Teuscher said there were misconceptions about the measure, and he plans to keep working on it in the interim.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan during House floor time at the Utah Legislative Session, Jan. 28, 2022.

Citing a “coordinated misinformation campaign” against his bill, a Utah lawmaker said Friday that he’ll now be dropping the controversial efforts he’d proposed to require teachers post their class syllabuses and a list of learning materials online for parents to inspect.

The surprising decision from Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, came in a three-page letter he posted to Twitter after his measure has faced intense scrutiny and questions from educators across the state who say they’re being micromanaged by lawmakers. The Utah Education Association had started a petition opposing the bill that collected more than 30,000 signatures.

Teuscher continued to defend HB234 Friday, though, saying even though he’s holding it, he wants to work in the interim to refine the idea.

“Timing is everything in politics and in order to ensure that teachers are heard, misconceptions are dispelled and the best solutions are developed, I think this bill is going to need more than the 34 days that we have left in the session,” he wrote.

The UEA, Utah’s largest teachers union, celebrated the decision Friday. President Heidi Matthews said she wants to show lawmakers the reality of what’s been happening in the classroom recently, with teachers overwhelmed by the pandemic and thrust into the political crossfire over their lesson plans.

“Educator voices are powerful,” Matthews said. “The UEA is glad this bill that would have created additional unnecessary work and distrust won’t be pursued this year.”

The measure from Teuscher is one of two bills targeting curriculum this session. The other, SB114 from Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, has also drawn concerns. It passed in committee Thursday, with a 4-2 vote, despite objections from teachers and will go forward to the full Senate next.

Under SB114, every public K-12 school district and charter in Utah would be required to follow a set process for approving instructional materials through their local school board — allowing for parents to review curriculum and weigh in before it could be taught in the classroom.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said Friday that she favored Fillmore’s approach. Teuscher’s proposal was too inflexible for a classroom setting, she said.

Fillmore “separates out supplemental materials, so, if I’m teaching civics and a current event just happened and I want to pull that into the discussion I can,” Millner said. “If there’s a YouTube video from an expert on a subject, they can use that.”

HB234, Teuscher said, was also meant to give parents more transparency into the classroom and “help alleviate feelings of mistrust between parents and teachers.” Both bills have the support of Utah Parents United, an outspoken right-wing coalition of roughly 4,000 parents that push for conservative policies in schools across the state. Both have been opposed by teachers.

Teuscher’s bill would have required that educators in junior high and high schools in Utah post all syllabuses for every course publicly online. Those would have to be updated throughout the school year to reflect any changes. And they would have to include a list of all learning materials that would be used in the classroom, including textbooks, videos, websites and others.

The school or charter would then be required to review and approve those syllabuses. And the school would need to keep a file of all those learning materials in a management system and provide a copy of them to any parent requesting further inspection.

Teuscher said the syllabuses didn’t have to be a “complete itemization of every lesson.” But the bill noted that the educator must “ensure that any learning materials used for student instruction that the educator did not list on the online syllabus are listed in the school’s learning management system.”

The syllabuses were also supposed to remain on a school website for at least two years.

The petition from the UEA said the legislation “shows an utter lack of understanding of instructional design and how teachers work. It is not a common-sense approach to increasing parental involvement and the responsiveness of public schools.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, reacts to the county's vote against a mask mandate in schools on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

The union said it would have made it harder for teachers to be flexible and add materials to their coursework to reflect topical discussions. One teacher said she didn’t understand why parents were being put above teachers in designing courses, when this is what educators trained for in school.

Several also responded on Twitter to Teuscher pulling the bill. One commented: “Perhaps if you want good teachers, the Legislature should fund training and pay enough to attract the best talent rather than micromanaging.”

Another added that a school district’s instructional materials are already 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 textbooks 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.

One teacher noted: “Please come visit teachers and see what we actually do. See how often we have to adapt plans for IEPs [individualized education plans for students with disabilities], absent students, and reteaching. We are professionals. Let us show you what we do just as we show parents. Transparency already exists in schools.”

Still, Teuscher said he talked to “countless” teachers and parents, as well as the state superintendent, in drafting the bill and didn’t see it as impeding the educators’ jobs. His effort, he added, wasn’t about “scoring political points.”

“This would be ludicrous and counterproductive,” he said in his letter.

Instead, he said, he wanted parents to be more involved in what their children are learning and to engage with the materials. He recounted how the summer before his 10th grade year in high school, he was assigned to read three books before the first day of class.

The teacher sent the list home in a letter to parents. And Teuscher said his dad decided to read the books alongside his son.

“That summer was one of the most memorable educational experiences of my life,” he said. “But for my teacher writing that letter and sharing what we were learning, I never would have had this impactful experience.”

He added that over the past few years, there has been a building tension with parents and teachers about what is being taught in the classroom. That has included debates especially about race; last session, the Utah Legislature banned any discussion about critical race theory in schools here (even though there’s no evidence that it was being talked about in the classroom).

“Anger, hostility and accusations around curriculum issues continues to escalate, despite teachers’ best efforts to dispel parent’s concerns,” Teuscher wrote. “Though it is fair to say that there are cases where these concerns have been justified, the far majority of teachers are doing an amazing job and really yeoman’s work in providing the best education for our kids.”

He said his intention was to create more transparency with parents about what teachers are doing so that they don’t feel “they have no control over what is being taught to their kids.”

“The hope is that taking a few minutes each week to update Canvas [an online platform most schools in Utah use] would allow parents to stay up-to-date on the topics and materials being discussed in class,” he wrote.

His intern said Friday, though, that Teuscher has received more than 400 emails on the bill and got inundated with those messages, believing that most misunderstood the purpose of HB234.

So the lawmaker said he will take the time to get it right, talk to more teacher and parents and “have a better forum to receive public input.” He said that’s the point of the legislative process, to revise and adjust and find a consensus, rather than “putting out fires and dispelling untruths.”

“I am in awe of the many sacrifices teachers make and in no way want to add to their stress,” he said. “That being said, I do greatly believe that if we can find a way to provide more curriculum transparency we could alleviate some of the stresses that teachers are under.”

—Tribune correspondent Bryan Schott contributed to this report.