The fuss over “critical race theory” in 2021 was much ado about nothing, but it did produce benefits. It got the Utah education community thinking about what equality in education really means and how to teach about the phenomenon of discrimination. Now Utah is doing what we usually do pretty well—shaping our own solution to a national issue.
In August 2021, about 40 parents and several students appeared before the South Sanpete School Board to make sure critical race theory was not taught and would not be taught in the district.
We suspect the parents had picked up the idea from social media and possibly from some far-right cable channels that critical race theory was a terrible concept that was spreading like wildfire through American schools. That premise is false.
Critical race theory is the idea that racism has been the driving force in American history. It is one of dozens of theories of American history that is examined in graduate schools, primarily at the doctoral level. It has never been taught in K-12 schools in Utah.
Nor is there any evidence the theory has gained any traction nationwide. The Association of American Educators, a nonpartisan educator group, conducted a survey and received more than 1,100 responses from teachers throughout the country. Ninety-six percent said their school districts did not require them to teach critical race theory.
Another problem with the appearance of the parents was that it was two months late. On June 4, 2021, the Utah State Board of Education (USBE), after four hours of debate and nearly 30 amendments, passed R277-328, an administrative rule on how issues of equality and nondiscrimination are to be handled in Utah public schools. In other words, by the time the parents came to the school board, the issues they raised had already been decided.
The USBE rule boils down to four points:
First, Utah schools must provide equal educational opportunity to all students regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or membership in any other protected class. Schools should take into account each student’s needs and background. However, equal opportunity does not guarantee all students will achieve the same outcomes.
Second, the rule bans any instruction that suggests that any race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. makes a person superior or inferior to people from a different race, religion, or protected class.
Third, the rule tells educators not to teach that their students today are responsible for wrongs inflicted on a given race, religion, or protected class in the past.
Fourth, the rule encourages instruction about and discussion of discrimination and other issues related to race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. But it says educators should present all sides of such issues and should not express their personal opinions on the matters.
Just recently, the Utah State Office of Education released a PowerPoint presentation, consisting of 17 slides, to inform educators statewide about R277-328. Last week, the North Sanpete School Board previewed the training. Superintendent Nan Ault said the training would first be presented to administrators and then taken out to educators in all schools in North Sanpete.
R277-328 mostly talks about philosophy and approach to issues of discrimination. But a couple of weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Day, the Utah Legislature announced the formation of a bipartisan working group to work with the USBE on a diversity curriculum. In other words, it appears the working group will be delving into the content.
One of the members, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, described the formation of the group as “an exciting moment.” She said, “The opportunity to shape a comprehensive, inclusive curriculum—embracing the whole history of our state—is critical.”
Let’s face it: Despite a lot of progress since the civil rights movement, too many Americans and Utahns have unfavorable stereotypes of people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Our history books don’t always give a balanced picture of our national flaws along with our national achievements. Utah leaders seem intent on changing some of that for our children and grandchildren. Education is the logical place to start.