Why some lawmakers want to ban critical race theory in Utah classrooms

Despite heavy lobbying from GOP, Gov. Cox declined to inlcude bill on special session agenda

(Photo courtesy of the Utah House of Representatives) Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson swears in Steve Christiansen to fill the vacancy left by former Utah Rep. Ken Ivory in 2019.

[Update: Critical race theory won’t be considered during this week’s legislative special session]

Lawmakers pushed hard to include a bill to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Utah’s schools, but Gov. Spencer Cox declined their requests.

Critical race theory was developed in the 1970s and 1980s. It asserts that racism is inextricably linked to the history of the United States. The concept is not currently taught in Utah’s schools.

More than a dozen GOP-controlled legislatures are considering targeting critical race theory at the federal level. The Idaho Legislature was the first to pass such a restriction via a bill that withholds funding from schools that teach viewpoints “often found in critical race theory.” A bill in Tennessee also withholds funding from schools found to be teaching those concepts, and Texas legislators are considering a similar measure.

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens plans to to introduce a pair of bills targeting critical race theory at the federal level.

In September 2020, former President Donald Trump issued a memo ordering the government to stop funding training on critical race theory for federal employees, calling the training a “propaganda effort.” President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s ban when he took office in January.

Now, it seems Utah Republicans want to get in on the act.

[Read more: What is critical race theory?]

An organized effort

Utah lawmakers say their email inboxes have been flooded by groups urging them to pass a ban on teaching critical race theory, and they hoped to add the measure to the agenda for Wednesday’s special session.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the issue was on a list of more than two dozen potential bills lawmakers requested to bring forward in the special session.

“We’re getting lots of calls and emails on it, so when that happens, we’re going to try to respond to constituents,” Adams said.

But those calls and emails are mostly the results of a pressure campaign organized by Utah Parents United, the group that led much of the opposition to mask-wearing in Utah’s schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, is leading an organized effort asking people to reach out to elected officials via phone and email on critical race theory.

The group is populating social media with posts urging people to call legislators and Gov. Spencer Cox to express opposition to the practice. Utah Parents United leaders did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Instead of targeting individual legislators with emails, activists are sending messages to every single legislator, flooding inboxes with hundreds of messages a day.

“Hundreds of the same letter doesn’t help us make these decisions,” said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights. “It’s important for us to be aware of what is getting people upset, but this issue is a little inflated as not one school board in Utah is thinking about teaching this.”

Not on the agenda

Despite heavy lobbying last week and through the weekend by Republicans in the legislature, Cox declined to add it to the list of bills for this week’s special session.

Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, is leading the effort in the House. He has declined to comment on the issue.

The Senate lead is Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, who also did not respond to requests for comment.

Legislative sources say lawmakers are trying to thread the needle with a proposed ban of critical race theory. They want to narrowly tailor the bill to ban only the teaching of the most controversial parts. The current thinking includes a ban for K-12 education, not colleges and universities.

The urgency around this issue supposedly comes after a recent training for charter school teachers in Utah about equity in schools that discussed topics like racial privilege, microaggression, and systemic racism.

“I can tell you what the urgency is,” says House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “When the state charter board rolls out a curriculum around something that is not well-vetted or thought out, at least that’s what I was told. The impression I got is that what was happening.”

Wilson later clarified his comments and said he was referring to the training offered to the state charter board, not that he believed they were rolling out a new curriculum.

Utah Board of Education spokesperson Mark Peterson said the state board is considering recommendations on issues like diversity, equity and inclusion in schools and providing professional training in those areas for teachers.

“Critical race theory is not part of the state core standards,” Peterson said.

Those state core standards are what all public schools in Utah use to set curriculum for students. There has been concern among members of the public that portions of that training are focused on critical race theory and that it may show up in classroom content.

And charter schools could include some elements of critical race theory in the classroom.

“The state charter school board has general oversight to ensure that public charter schools are teaching what is required by the state,” Executive Director Jennifer Lambert said. “Ultimately, charter schools have autonomy in how they meet those standards.”

A manufactured crisis?

Some say the issue is being pushed by right-wing media, which has amplified the teaching of systemic racism in the nation’s schools. The left-leaning Media Matters for America says Fox News covered the topic more than 550 times in an 11-month period. The topic was discussed on the network 235 times in April alone.

But the real question is whether this issue is so urgent that it needs to be addressed in a special session instead of through the normal legislative process.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, is a retired teacher.

“There is a process. I’ve talked to members of the state board. They’ve never had a meeting about this topic or any kind of formal discussion about it,” she said.

She says the state does not make any changes to the curriculum, and local schools take their marching orders from the State Board of Education.

“There are enough people alarmed by this we should watch it carefully,” Riebe said. “To put something this emotional in a special session will deny the public the input they deserve.”