Utah parents could sue education officials or teachers for almost any reason under proposed bill

SB157 puts parental rights above any other consideration when it comes to public education.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork speaks with Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, during Senate floor time at the Legislative Session, Jan. 25, 2022.

A new bill in the Utah Legislature would give parents the authorization to sue schools or education officials for any perceived infringement of their rights as a parent.

SB157 from Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, gives parents blanket legal standing “obtain judicial and other legal relief,” to exercise their rights as a parent.

The proposal then lists several areas where parents would be permitted to assert their rights when it comes to the education of their children, including curriculum, textbooks, classroom materials, teacher training and courses of study among other things.

Johnson’s bill is stuffed with language to make it crystal clear that parents are the ultimate authority when it comes to the education of their children. Parents have the “primary authority and responsibility for the education” of their children, and the only job of state and local government is to “support and assist” rather than “interfere or conflict with” parents. The Legislature, school boards and public schools are given the mission to “respect” and “protect” the interest of parents.

The bill appears to create a legal free-for-all in which a parent to file a lawsuit and seek monetary damages if they feel any aspect of their child’s education steps on their rights as a parent or if they find it objectionable. That could include suing the Legislature for passing a law they think infringes on their rights down to suing individual teachers over an assignment in class.

One group Johnson excluded from discussions on the proposal was the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. The first time they saw the bill was when it was made public this week.

“This type of legislation is an attack on public schools and pits parents against teachers. Parents and teachers are both essential to student success. Our overburdened educators do not need more attacks on their profession right now. They need support. They need parents who step up and get involved, not legislators who talk down and encourage needless controversy,” said Heidi Matthews, President of the UEA.

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.

Johnson’s bill also appears to pick a fight with the federal government over public education. The bill asserts there is “no valid authority or basis for direct or indirect involvement” by the federal government in public education in Utah.

Utah received $384,527,300 in federal funding in 2022 which made up about 6% of Utah’s $6.33 billion public education budget. That does not account for an additional $683 million in one-time pandemic-related funds. A fight with the federal government over regulations or conditions attached to that funding could put that money at risk, leaving lawmakers to make up the difference.

The bill is currently in the Senate Rules Committee awaiting a committee assignment.