Opinion: Utah parents deserve a voice in how our children are educated

Utah parents can choose their child’s school, but not what they read.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman walks past dozens of banned books displayed on a table in Weller Book Works in Trolley Square for Banned Book Week in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

We all want and deserve a voice in how our children are educated. In a democracy, each of us has an equal say.

Some Utahns, it seems, feel entitled to determine how everyone else’s children are educated. Legislation recently passed by the Education Interim Committee gave very few a say over how everyone else’s children are educated.

The recent passage of HB 215 allows each K-12 student in Utah access to a voucher of $8,000 with which to select the school of their choosing, giving families more control than ever before over the exact nature of their child’s education. If you are uncomfortable with the syllabus your local public high school uses in its English language curriculum, no problem, switch to a charter school.

This controversial concession to parent choice should logically quell the panic over “sensitive materials.” But for an active and vocal minority of parents, even that is insufficient.

On Nov. 15 the committee passed an amendment to the sensitive materials legislation, which would remove access to any learning material deemed inappropriate by just three school districts or two school districts and five charter schools.

Let’s be crystal clear here: Utah has 41 school districts and 137 charter schools, with a total K-12 enrollment of approximately 675,000. Potentially, just three districts out of 41 could determine whether 675,000 students have access to a book. Even more alarming, the public does not vote to elect a charter school’s board, meaning that an unelected cohort could determine what material is available to every Utah student. This amendment makes it conceivable that three school boards with five members each could restrict the first amendment rights of 675,000 students. By contrast, the state requires 134,000 handwritten signatures collected across the state to pass a ballot initiative. It is difficult to see how this gives all an equal say.

During discussion, Sen. Kathleen Riebe articulated this very concern. Her motion to set the bar at a minimum representation of 40% of the Utah student population received little support.

As Terra Cooper with Utah Parents for Teachers noted, this legislation not only denies many their first amendment rights, but it also vilifies our educators and librarians.

Cooper rightly points out the burden this legislation places on districts. In fact, the amendment calls for regular audits by the Office of the Auditor General, it stipulates that the individuals who challenge material must be indemnified and protected from all costs resulting from the challenge, and it requires any material pulled by two districts or five charter schools be removed within 10 days. The resources necessary to comply with this legislation are significant.

Clearly, those individuals sponsoring this legislation, namely Rep. Ken Ivory, are not satisfied to have a voice in their own children’s education, they are demanding the right to speak for everyone else. How can the state of Utah abide this denial of parental rights?

When every Utah parent already has the funding and the freedom to change schools whenever they want, why do they also get to decide for everyone else what their education should look like?

Well, to paraphrase George Orwell, I suppose some of us feel more equal than others.

(Cathy Lanigan) Cathy Lanigan serves on the board of the Friends of the Park City Library.

Cathy Lanigan is the parent of three graduates of Park City High School. She currently serves on the board of the Friends of the Park City Library and the University of Michigan English Department Advisory Board, and recently completed her term of service on the Park City Education Foundation Board.

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