Fear and ‘culture wars’ fuel move to repeal ‘educational equity’ in schools, Utah state school board member says

Utah State Board of Education member Sarah Reale called the move “frustrating and irresponsible.”

(BW Productions) Utah State Board of Education member Sarah Reale speaks at an educational event at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 15, 2023. Reale called a move to repeal an administrative rule that ensures educational equity for all students "frustrating and irresponsible" during a state school board meeting Friday.

If a list were to rank Utah schools’ and educators’ top concerns, removing “educational equity” wouldn’t be on it, said Utah State Board of Education member Sarah Reale on Friday.

Reale was referring to the potential repeal of an administrative rule ensuring educational equity for all students, a request brought late last month by state board members Christina Boggess, Emily Green and Joseph Kerry.

USBE’s Standards and Assessment Committee met Friday morning to consider the matter, but after only one statement from Reale and no further committee discussion, it was moved forward for the full board’s consideration in January. Reale cast the sole dissenting vote.

“I have lots of reasons as to why the removal of this rule is frustrating and irresponsible,” Reale said. “I’m here to do work that improves our schools and not feed into partisan political debates.”

Boggess, Green and Kerry did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

The rule in question defines “educational equity” as recognizing that all students can learn, and that schools will provide all resources needed for equal educational opportunities. That includes funding, programs and policies to ensure students have the same access to education, no matter their backgrounds. It also requires districts to provide equity training to staff and educators.

“That should not be controversial,” said Darlene McDonald, a national committee member for the Utah Democratic Party who ran for Congress last year, during public comment Friday. “We should not be here discussing the repeal of [the educational equity rule]. So, why are we?”

The potential repeal was originally a last-minute addition to a Nov. 30 Standards and Assessment Committee agenda, added only hours before the scheduled meeting, according to state officials. That was due to an administrative error, committee Chair Randy Boothe previously told The Salt Lake Tribune.

A resulting influx of emails and phone calls from members of the public prompted state leaders to delay the discussion until Friday.

“It’s an irresponsible use of time prioritizing this request,” Reale said Friday, adding that she has no time for conversations “clearly driven by the culture wars and political theater we are seeing impacting education nationwide.”

In 2021, before USBE officially adopted the equity rule, intense deliberation erupted among board members and the public.

At the time, opponents feared the rules were a “backdoor” to teaching critical race theory in Utah schools, a graduate-level theory that analyzes how social, political laws and the media shape social conceptions of race and ethnicity. The theory considers racism to be inherent and systemic in Western society. It has never been taught in Utah’s K-12 schools.

Reale maintained the repeal’s sponsors are perpetuating that fear.

“[The repeal’s] intent isn’t to help our students’ educational experience,” Reale said. “It is to create fear, play into conspiracies about our classrooms and create divisions. And to teach our students to create divisions among themselves.”

The equity rule prevents the teaching of critical race theory-related concepts, such as racism being inherent. Specifically, it prohibits teaching that students or educators who belong to a certain group bear any responsibility for past actions of individuals of that same group.

It also prohibits teaching concepts including: that any race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other protected class is inherently superior or inferior; that a student or educator’s identity within a certain group determines their character or values; and that a student or educator should be discriminated against based on their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other protected class.

Marilee Coles-Ritchie, a professor of teacher education at Westminster University, told board members Friday that she’s had experience educating a school district about critical race theory.

“I’m happy to do that training for the board,” Coles-Ritchie said. “Just let me know and I will come and do that so that you’re not scared about it.”

USBE’s next board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 11 starting at 9 a.m. The agenda and details are still to come.