On the south lawn of the Utah State Capitol, a bipartisan group of Utah lawmakers said the things one would expect to hear when discussing diversity and inclusion in Utah’s schools, especially on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
They announced the creation of the Utah Diversity and Inclusion Commission, a group tasked with examining how to teach those subjects in Utah’s schools.
Since early 2021 the debate surrounding how topics such as history and race have been marked with venom and vitriol, with scenes of angry parents packing school board meetings. This is the kind of scene the new group is hoping to avoid, says House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. He’ll co-chair the commission along with Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City and Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.
“Many states have struggled to find an appropriate way to address these issues as they teach history in our classrooms. This isn’t about politics. This is about bettering ourselves and educating future generations in the hope of finding more compassion and understanding,” Schultz said.
“I’m excited to find ways to address these issues and find ways to not talk past each other, but to move forward and help incorporate these ideas,” Cullimore said.
The teaching of race and history has been a political football over the last year in Utah. Guidelines on teaching equity in the state’s schools got wrapped up in the controversy over critical race theory. Republican lawmakers tangled with Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell on the topic. Seeing a political opportunity, Sen. Mike Lee demagogued the issue, then raised funds off of it.
There are plenty of recent racially charged incidents that prompted lawmakers to act.
Hollins pointed to the suicide of Izzy Tichenor, the 10-year-old Black student in Davis County who killed herself after being mistreated by classmates and her teachers. Schultz brought up last week’s bomb threat against the Black Cultural Center at the University of Utah, which followed other racist incidents at the school.
“We don’t want any more of our children in our system to have to face this. I’m looking forward to finding a solution that is going to make all of our children safe in the school system,” Hollins said.
Organizers hope the commission will turn down the temperature surrounding race, equity and education, but that’s not a given. Several bills could surface during the upcoming session seeking to dictate or even limit what Utah’s students are taught on the topic. Schultz says the commission wasn’t formed as a “brushback” to any other proposals.
While the idea of the commission came together quickly within the last few days, the process will be lengthy. Cullimore says they’re currently working on legislation to formally create the commission and its mission, which they’ll push to pass by the end of the session. Formal recommendations for legislation on the curriculum should come toward the end of 2022.