A Utah lawmaker wants teacher licenses to be reviewed if they talk about controversial topics

A legislative committee voted to adjourn rather than hear the measure, which might spell defeat for it this session.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, during Senate floor time at the Legislative Session, Jan. 25, 2022. A committee to hear Johnson's bill, SB257, adjourned before taking a vote on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022.

A sweeping bill that would punish Utah teachers for talking about “divisive concepts” in the classroom — triggering an investigation into their licenses if they do — has stalled in committee.

The measure, SB257, comes in the eleventh hour of the session from Sen. John Johnson, a far-right leaning Republican from Ogden. And it appears to be inspired by the conservative push that has blossomed across the country in the past year against critical race theory, a topic on which Johnson also funded a documentary.

The senator introduced the bill late Monday in the Senate Education Committee, which he chairs. But in an unusual move, the committee voted 3-2 to adjourn shortly after the senator finished speaking, without listening to public comment or taking action.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights and an educator, said that was the “best motion” they could make in response to the proposal.

Johnson, who sat at the front of the room to present, shouted into the microphone before it was shut off.

“I think that’s very bad that people who waited here all night didn’t get to speak at all,” he yelled.

About 10 to 15 people were still sitting in the room at 6:30 p.m., with Johnson’s bill last on the agenda. Every other bill before that but one had passed out of the committee with a favorable recommendation. With days left in the session, there is still time for SB257 to reemerge, but it is unlikely.

And Johnson’s proposal immediately faced questions, including from those in his own party.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden and a college professor, said she was confused by the bill and she had “never seen language like that here” in Utah before. The broad measure would apply to both public K-12 schools and state-funded colleges and universities, which has caused concern from faculty statewide.

Under the measure, all teachers and professors would be prohibited from teaching “divisive concepts.” Those were defined in the bill similarly to how the Utah Legislature defined instruction on critical race theory in its ban on that in classrooms last year, mainly that one race should not be blamed for the actions of the past.

Millner questioned whether a particular instance spurred the motion. A teacher in Lehi was criticized — and later quit — after she was recorded sounding off to her students in a profane speech that jumped from former President Donald Trump to the COVID-19 vaccine in the fall.

Even still, Millner said that would just be one teacher in one school in one district in a large state. She said the response did not seem appropriate.

“It’s just not consistent with how we do things up here,” she said. “It’s out of character.”

Johnson defended the measure, but said he intended for the review of an educator’s license to take place only after repeated violations and warnings. Millner pointed out that the bill says the investigation would be “automatic” and doesn’t mention multiple issues.

“That’s a good point. That should probably be amended,” Johnson said. “There would need to be due process.”

What the bill says

As it stood, the bill called for educators to be investigated for violating the policy on “divisive concepts.” They could be reviewed by the Utah Professional Practices and Advisory Commission, which reviews cases involving teacher misconduct, and potentially have their license revoked.

Additionally, SB257 would require schools to deny any grants of funding from groups that promote those concepts. And it set out a process for several legislative committees to review compliance by schools — and reporting teacher violations.

Those that failed to follow the rules could lose requests for appropriations from the state.

Johnson also read the language directly from the bill during his presentation, including what counts as “divisive concepts.”

That includes: teaching that one race is superior to another, teaching that an individual is inherently racist or privileged because of skin color or that an individual bears responsibility for past actions of someone with the same traits.

The bill forbids teachers, too, from mentioning that the United States government should be overthrown or that it is “fundamentally, systemically, or irredeemably racist, sexist, or nationalistic.” The same applies to capitalism.

That is the same wording that many on the right use in discussing critical race theory.

(There is no evidence that critical race theory, an academic framework that pinpoints racism as the defining feature of the United States, is being taught in any K-12 schools in Utah.)

Johnson said it does not forbid teachers from talking about history, as long as the lessons are “truthful, balanced and unbiased concepts” and go off of “original source documents.” And the bill says students must first learn about the U.S. Constitution before those discussions.

“This bill is not about squashing history or other things,” Johnson said. “We don’t mind looking at history, warts and all, as long as they’re historically accurate and unbiased concepts.”

More pushback

Johnson acknowledged that former state Rep. Steve Christiansen, a staunch conservative, helped draft the language, which replicates bills in other red states. Christiansen retired in October before the session, but attended the meeting Monday.

When Christiansen first proposed the idea, in the summer, it was met by immediate pushback from college professors, who said that academic freedom and freedom of expression should apply in higher education. The state, some said, should have no say in what is taught at a university-level where the students are also adults.

“Potentially, anything could be considered to be divisive,” University of Utah political science professor Edmund Fong previously said.

In her classrooms at Weber State University, Millner added that she will sometimes say something that her students take differently than intended.

“I just think we all have different lens through which we look at things,” Millner noted. “Teachers may have the best of intentions.”

K-12 teachers across the state this session have been frustrated by bills they say have targeted them. Some have said they feel they have to watch every word they say.

Other measures proposed this session have included parsing through curriculum, making lesson plans available online for parents and removing any “pornographic” books from school libraries.

It has put many on edge.

Riebe, the senator who moved to adjourn the meeting Monday, said the Utah State Board of Education is currently working on rules for teachers and sensitive classroom discussions. She said the debate should be left to that board.

During the same committee meeting, lawmakers did approve a bill to create a committee to discuss how ethnic studies could be taught in Utah classrooms. Some of those who spoke during the public comment period suggest that was also critical race theory.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said it was instead about teaching the history and contributions of all minorities. The Utah State Board of Education will have final say on any curriculum.