Satisfied with school board’s actions for now, Republicans don’t see critical race theory rising again until 2022

Lawmakers dug into school board guidelines on race and equity during Education Interim Committee meeting

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Hansen and Mark Huntsman of the Utah State Board of Education speak at a meeting of the Education Interim Committee at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Critical race theory in public education was on the agenda.

Utah lawmakers finally got their chance to tackle critical race theory in an official setting on Wednesday. But the Education Interim Committee was mostly subdued, and without the usual overheated rhetoric that accompanies the topic.

Republican legislators were frustrated when Gov. Spencer Cox declined to put the issue on last month’s special session agenda. In response, they went around Cox to pass a pair of non-binding resolutions urging the Utah State School Board to implement standards for classroom materials or teacher training that did not elevate any race or group ahead of another.

That pressure worked.

Earlier this month the state board approved guidelines for addressing race in Utah’s schools that addressed lawmakers’ concerns about the controversial topic.

Scott Hansen, chair of the school board’s Standards and Assessment committee, which drafted the rule on addressing race in the classroom, told lawmakers Wednesday it was a delicate process.

“We didn’t want to be in the business of banning ideas. We thought that was a bad precedent to set, and wanted to make sure ideas could be discussed appropriately and within guidelines,” he said.

Instead, the rule says teachers should not promote any one specific idea over another, and any concept needs to be presented in an age-appropriate manner.

That idea caught the attention of Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, who felt it may have an unintended effect.

“If they cannot promote one specific approach over another, that means they can’t promote capitalism over communism, which is what our country is founded on,” she said.

“You’re going beyond the scope of the rule here,” Hansen said. “We’re dealing just with equity here. There are standards on how that sort of thing is taught.”

Ballard then asked Hansen whether he feels the guidelines are sufficient, or should the Legislature to take further action?

“We’ve been working on this a long time,” Hansen said. “I think we have a very workable rule that I believe meets the objectives the Legislature conveyed to us. I think we’re in a good spot.”

Sources say Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the Legislature, are mostly satisfied with the school board’s actions, and they don’t anticipate tackling the topic again until the 2022 session. But come January, there could be several pieces of legislation taking aim at critical race theory.

There’s was some concern among some lawmakers Wednesday that the school board’s push to provide equity for students could end up marginalizing minorities in the classroom or putting non-minority students at a disadvantage.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, worried that the focus on equity could deny some resources for a white student who needs them in favor of a student who comes from a minority background.

“You could foresee circumstances where there are kids of two different races, both of whom are struggling,” Fillmore said. “They both receive some resource help. But, based on this rule, more resources would be dedicated to one child specifically on his race.”

Hansen shot down Fillmore’s hypothetical scenario.

“I don’t see any evidence in our education system where what you’re stating could happen is happening,” Hansen said. “I don’t know of any place where it would exist.”

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, was perturbed that race was even a consideration when assessing educational outcomes.

“I think about these classifications that you use to try and solve some of these problems. Why are you using skin color, which is predominantly associated with race? Why are that the criteria that are used for categorization?” Robertson said.

Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden echoed that concern: “I just wonder why you want to muddy the waters by dividing students into groups. What allows you to divide these kids into groups the way you do?”

Board representatives said in response that they’ve seen a correlation between ethnicity and some educational outcomes.