Proposed Utah school board rule prohibits instruction that recognizes any race as superior or inferior

The Utah State Board of Education will consider the guidelines next week.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Standing behind her is Betty Sawyer, who holds an opposing point of view.

Acutely aware of the current controversy swirling around critical race theory in the nation’s classrooms, a Utah Board of Education committee approved new rules for addressing equity and inclusion in Utah’s K-12 schools Thursday.

They now go to the full board for consideration.

The proposed rules have nothing to do with critical race theory, which is not currently taught in Utah’s classrooms. That fact has not stopped members of the public from worrying that the push to recognize equity in education will lead to its introduction.

That worry attracted the attention of state lawmakers, who made the unusual move last week of passing a pair of parallel resolutions tasking the state board to come up with rules preventing the teaching of concepts related to critical race theory.

Utah is one of nine states moving to limit students’ exposure to critical race theory, a concept that links racism to the nation’s history and legal system.

The proposed guidelines approved by the committee hew closely to the resolutions approved by lawmakers. That wasn’t a coincidence, per committee chair Scott Hansen.

“We recognize the substantial nudge we got from the Legislature to take some action here,” he said. “This is a work that’s been ongoing for quite some time with the board.”

The committee did not take public comment during the meeting, but committee members said they received hundreds of written comments ahead of time.

The final draft of the proposed rules prohibits instruction or professional development for teachers that recognizes any race, gender or religion as being superior or inferior to another. It also blocks any teaching that makes a person feel guilty for the past actions of individuals of the same groups.

Those guidelines mirror the language approved by lawmakers last week. The committee also proposed additions that would have clamped down further on what concepts surrounding race can be addressed in Utah’s classrooms or in professional development for teachers.

For example, one proposed amendment to the guidelines would prohibit compelling “a teacher or student to adopt, affirm, adhere to, or profess ideas” that violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in any program that receives federal funds. That is a favorite argument of opponents of critical race theory because of the amount of federal money that goes toward education. The tactic was recently used by Montana’s attorney general in challenging the legality of anti-racism teaching.

“Isn’t it already against the law for a public employee to compel another to adopt racist ideas under this part of the Civil Rights Act?” asked board member Brent Strate. “Isn’t that already the case?”

That addition was not adopted into the final draft of the rules, but it demonstrated the tightrope that committee members were attempting to walk as they balanced the need for equity with public concern.

Another proposed addition rejected by the committee would have blocked teachers and students from being required to discuss public policy issues of the day without their consent.

The proposed guidelines will be considered by the full board of education during its meeting next week.