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Education

Lawmakers to create working group on classroom transparency standards

A photo of a empty classroom.
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State lawmakers are creating a working group to look at the curriculum approval process for public schools and set statewide standards.

Lawmakers in an education legislative committee hearing Wednesday said they’d been inundated with emails about a proposal from Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

It suggested the committee create a new law that would “require public schools to make all instructional materials used in social science courses available online for parents to review.”

It added that the public school system be audited each year and teachers would be prevented from forcing a student to agree with a particular point of view.

Fillmore said the proposal came in response to constituent feedback on “both sides of some controversial issues regarding social studies,” as many parents have expressed concerns over how schools are addressing things like racial equity and teaching lessons on history and emotional wellbeing.

But in the end, rather than issue a new bill, lawmakers agreed to create a working group that would set statewide transparency standards and further clarify how teachers address polarizing subjects in the classroom.

Still, the proposal had some public education advocates worried that the legislature was heading down a path that would not only add more bureaucratic hurdles for already stressed teachers, but fuel suspicions that they’re secretly pushing a political agenda.

“I think some of the problematic [material] that have been in the news, they certainly illustrate in some cases bad judgment on the part of a teacher,” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, who’s also a retired English teacher. “But it seems like it's grown to something that's looking at the whole system as being flawed. And it is not.”

Spackman Moss said none of the many emails she received about the proposal supported it, even if the specifics were still vague. She added the materials teachers use already require district approval and go through an arduous and public vetting process.

The state Board of Education also maintains a public database of textbooks and digital sources reviewed and recommended by a committee of school administrators, teachers and parents. The group was scheduled to be disbanded next year, but lawmakers voted Wednesday to renew it.

“We all want transparency,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “We want that robust and strong partnership with our parents and our students. But as a committee, I would just urge you to focus on what problem it is that we are looking to solve.”

While public comments were limited, one parent, Monica Wilbur, said she didn’t feel materials were always accessible to parents. Even if they are available online, she said they’re sometimes password-protected and can be difficult to see.

Sen. Fillmore said there is nothing preventing a school or teacher from making items available, and many districts already do so. But he said the working group would look to create a statewide standard, or requirement, for all districts to adhere to.

“It should not be the Legislature's role to dictate what gets taught in classrooms,” he said. “What the Legislature ought to do is create an avenue to ensure that the district policy and curriculum approval process is open and transparent that allows for parental feedback on the front end rather than the back.”

He said the working group will come together over the next month and will be made up of lawmakers, school board members, teachers and parents.

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