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Education

Parents’ Rights In Public Education Give Them Broad Authority To Object To Content

A photo of a school corridor.
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Parents in Utah can object to lessons on religious grounds or if they violate strongly-held convictions.

Utah made national headlines last weekend, after the Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden said it would allow parents to opt their children out of Black History Month curriculum.

Administrators denied requests for interviews. But in a written statement, the school’s director said “a few families” had requested to opt out and, given their rights as parents, he “reluctantly” agreed to let them.

According to Jaime Tracy, whose daughter is in 4th grade and one of the few black students at the school, the new director shared her vision for expanding the school’s curriculum to incorporate stories from Black Americans and other underrepresented groups. It’s something she’s been pushing for a while, she said.

Shortly after plans got underway, however, she received the email explaining families at the school had asked not to participate.

“That's when I realized, like whoa, there must have been enough families where he thought he had to send this email out that said he was saddened and disappointed about some of the reactions that he got,” Tracy said.

After the news was first reported by the Standard-Examiner, national media outlets spread the word. Outrage — and support — came pouring in.

Tracy said people from around the country reached out to the school, offering resources and ideas to expand curriculum for Black History Month. The offer to opt out was later removed and the school was able to resolve the families’ concerns, the director wrote.

The controversy shows the fine line many schools are walking as they try to present a more complete picture of the country’s history, from the contributions of Black Americans and other people of color, to the legacy of racism and oppression.

Others have pushed back, opting for a more “patriotic” view that paints the U.S. in a more positive light.

Parents Are Utah’s Primary Educators

In Utah, the debate often centers around parents’ rights. The state has core curriculum standards which students can’t opt out of. But they can get a waiver to abstain from lessons that force students to affirm or deny a religious belief or “right of conscience.”

State code also explicitly outlines the government’s role in education is "secondary to the primary role of a parent.” The language was originally added to Utah code in 2014. State representatives also passed a resolution Thursday that essentially restates the parents’ role in education.

Jeff Van Hulten, Director of Public Affairs for the Utah State Board of Education, said the resolution is not legally binding. But it does serve as a reminder to parents of their authority and to schools that parents are in the drivers’ seat.

“[Parents] have the first right of refusal, if you will, to kind of make sure that everything their student’s receiving is what they would like. And when it's not, then they can opt them out,” Van Hulten said.

But the terms are broad, so there is a lot of leeway. And it’s up to schools to determine if a parents’ request meets the requirements. If schools and parents can’t come to an agreement, the issue could be resolved in court, though Van Hulten said that has not happened before.

He said it’s much easier for a family to switch schools.

Schools’ Role

For Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden chapter of the NAACP, schools play an important role in teaching equity and inclusion and they should be willing to stand up for those values.

“They should have clear reasons why this is important, why we are committed to do this work,” Sawyer said. “And not to just give in.“

Sawyer said she’s in ongoing discussions with the school’s administration and is hopeful they’ll use the moment to make their school more inclusive. She said she’s pushing for a diversity and equity council and hiring a more diverse staff.

In a statement to KUER, chair of the school’s board Mary Wurm wrote the school is committed to exemplifying a spirit of inclusiveness and will change the process by which they field and respond to requests to not participate.

“Our main mistake was the manner in which we tried to accommodate a small group of parents,” Wurm said. “We didn’t think through how it could be perceived by our school community and didn’t adequately explain at that time what participation can and cannot be waived. Moving forward, we will be more thoughtful and aware of the unintended consequences of our decisions.”

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