Taylor Knuth & Sonny Partola: Ask Utah students what they think of critical race theory

What is being left out in the debate over critical race theory in Utah schools is the student’s perspective. When our leaders fail to center student voices, they fail our students.

Many politicians have weighed in on the dog whistle “issue” of CRT. Local Republican critics include U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Burgess Owens, and state Sen. John Johnson. They have leveled allegations of CRT being an “anti-American virus,” that somehow undermines unity, with Johnson expressing interests in banning the theory in curriculum throughout Utah schools through legislation.

The fact is that tenets of CRT do not align with these falsehoods. However, Utah GOP’s weaponization of this topic for their own political gain does, in fact, undermine unity.

CRT is not being taught to children in Utah grade schools, trust us, we would know as young people with a combined 40 years as students throughout Utah’s public education system.

I (Taylor Knuth) attended Title I schools in Davis County. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Utah schools. In the 19 years I spent in these educational spaces, I never felt seen or valued as a gay LatinX student in these predominantly white settings.

I am currently in my second year at the University of Utah for my Ph.D. in Education, Culture and Society and, for the first time as a student, I am valued for all of my identities and positionalities and their intersections. Also for the first time, I am actively learning about CRT, and let me tell you, even after a year of in-depth engagement with this theory, I have only scratched the surface of understanding the mountains of academic research.

I (Sonny Partola) attended schools in the Jordan School District, which were incredibly homogeneous. As a second-generation Indian-American, I was always one of only a few students of color. While I was proud of my family’s heritage and ways of life, I often felt judged whenever I shared information about my ethnicity or family’s culture in school. This seriously deterred my desire to continue my education.

Ultimately, I chose to pursue higher education, but had I been offered coursework in CRT at a younger age, I could have made better sense of the world around me. I say this now as an educator and Ph.D. student. I took many social-justice oriented classes but, similar to Taylor, it was not until I enrolled in a Ph.D. program that my coursework began scratching the surface of CRT.

CRT has not permeated education in the ways Republicans have claimed. Even Gov. Spencer Cox has said that “it’s not being taught anywhere.” So why then do GOP politicians seem so fixated on this particular topic instead of addressing real issues in our state like drought, housing and vaccination rates among young people.

The Utah GOP has a track record of hampering student voices on educational issues, often disguising their actions as somehow “protecting” young people. Porn is a public health crisis for students in Utah, but clean air to breathe is not. Trans female students in school bathrooms is potentially harmful to those assigned female at birth, but twice-impeached former President Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women are OK. Schools reopening in-person learning in the middle of a deadly pandemic is necessary for educational success, but adequate funding is not.

During each example of Utah’s political circus highlighted above, our GOP leaders have left out student voices. Whether by design or not, it must end. We deserve better and we deserve more from these “leaders” if we are to truly prevent harm and promote the success of all students in Utah.

Sonny Partola

Taylor Knuth

Sonny Partola and Taylor Knuth are both second year Ph.D. students at the University of Utah in the Department of Education, Culture, and Society.