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Opinion: The Utah Legislature is gearing up to solve education problems that don’t exist

The first few numbered bills are now live on the Utah Legislature’s website, and there are already a few to be wary of.

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) The Utah House of Representatives is shown during the final night of the Utah Legislature Friday, March 3, 2023, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

Every August, like many teachers, I have back-to-school stress dreams. They have some common themes: accidentally coming to school in my pajamas, a classroom full of ornery students who throw things at me, getting lost in a labyrinthian school, zombies — you know, the usual.

Once school begins and I get to once again get to connect with and teach my students, the stress dreams fade and I gear up for the real nightmare — Utah’s state legislative session and its often-divisive impact on our school communities.

Like many teachers, I follow the session closely and grapple with a feeling of dread for the full 45 days and the days before, anticipating proposed legislation that would negatively affect our students by adding red tape, extra work for teachers who are already maxed out on their time and energy and an unnecessarily adversarial quality to the relationships between teachers, schools and the families they serve.

The first few numbered bills are now live on the Utah State Legislature website, and there are already a few to be wary of (and, looking at national trends as well as bills from previous sessions, we know more are coming).

HB 29, for example, would drastically increase the reach of partisan elected officials by allowing them (in addition to a school employee, student or parent) to challenge the appropriateness of any instructional material — book, worksheet, video, website or anything else a teacher may use in the classroom — from any school district within the area they represent. It would then be up to the district to determine if the instructional material constitutes a violation of state laws regarding pornography. Districts must consider if the material has “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” which requires an incredibly subjective evaluation that school districts have disagreed on as recently as last year. If HB 29 passes, it would only take three school districts banning a book or other instructional material to require districts across the state to yank it from the shelves, even if their school community disagrees with that subjective evaluation of its literary (or other) value.

This is just one of many upcoming bills designed to convince our community that teachers are untrustworthy and secretive, and that public schools are on a mission to indoctrinate students and ruin our state. The truth is, our schools are more accountable, transparent and accessible than they have ever been. The state school board and our local school boards establish detailed policies to ensure safety, accountability and fairness in our classrooms and have discipline or corrective procedures for if schools or teachers fall short. Every school has a School Community Council of parents who have a direct vote on decisions the school makes. Teachers use content-specific and state board-approved core standards to guide their instruction and selection of curriculum so it’s easy to search for what big ideas or skills students will be expected to learn. They often post assignments, readings and slides online for students (or parents) to access on platforms such as Canvas. Parents can also closely follow their student’s attendance, assignments and grades using online student information systems such as Power School or Skyward.

When the legislative session rolls around, if you see a bill that purports to improve our education system by regulating or micromanaging the daily work of teachers, making our schools more “transparent,” or removing materials that experienced, professional teachers and librarians have selected in alignment with school values and state standards, ask the teachers in your community how they feel about it. It is likely that the bills will be designed to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and will create significantly more work, stress, and unnecessary red tape for teachers and schools. Then, speak up as a parent and say these bills are not what our state needs.

If you have a question or concern about something your child is learning, you can email the teacher and ask about it. We like nothing more than to “nerd out” and talk about our content area or pedagogy with another person who cares about what is happening in our classroom. If you grant us the benefit of the doubt and be curious about what we are working on at school, you will find that we love to praise the progress of our students or share projects they have been working on.

Parents are our most important allies and students learn best when we are on the same team. I’ll sleep well (despite temporary post-winter break dreams of getting to school 15 hours late or all my teeth falling out and being replaced by number two pencils) if the nightmares brought by the legislative session are contained by a united front of parents, teachers and students who stay informed and stay connected.

Sarah Nichols

Sarah Nichols is a national board certified teacher and a Hope Street Group Utah Teacher Fellow who uses her voice to advocate for system-wide change out of love for students, teachers, public education and good policy. She currently works as a behavior specialist for the Salt Lake City School District and serves on the Salt Lake Education Association’s executive board.

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