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Utah Senate Education Committee debates ethnic studies standard for students

A photo of diverse school kids sitting in a library and reading.
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Critical Race Theory has become a contentious topic largely for conservative parents and lawmakers around the country.

Utah students could have a new ethnic studies standard under a bill introduced in the Senate Education Committee Monday afternoon.

The bill, SB 244, would establish a committee to study the contributions of ethnic minorities in Utah and recommend how to incorporate them into K-12 core standards.

The committee would be made up of five representatives, five senators and two others appointed by the governor. They could also establish a subcommittee made up of people from the community organizations and the general public. Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, have already been selected to lead the committee.

Specific lesson plans and materials related to the standard would be developed by individual districts, as they normally are, and be designed to impart “cultural awareness” and increase “cultural knowledge.”

“This is important for positive academic and social outcomes for all students,” said Jackie Thompson, the recently hired assistant superintendent of the Davis School District and co-chair of the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition.

Lawmakers voted unanimously to advance the bill out of committee. It will move on to the full Senate later this week.

Pre-empting the nearly hour-long public debate that followed, bill sponsor Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said the bill has nothing to do with Critical Race Theory and the debate around how schools address topics related to social equity.

But that was the main concern many in the audience brought up. Some questioned whether the standard would supplant existing curriculum and serve as a gateway to introducing CRT into classrooms.

Nicholeen Peck, president of the Worldwide Ogranization for Women, said curricula changed in the United Kingdom following the murder of George Floyd and protests over racial injustice, which led to “erasing the English or British history of their land.”

“The parents were very concerned that those children who were descended from the people who founded Britain would actually then lose identity,” she said. “So I think we need to be very careful about that going forward.”

Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, who is running a separate bill that would ban “divisive concepts” in schools, questioned whether there would be guardrails to ensure the standard would not bring out the “tribalism” that emerges in many of the conversations around race and equity.

Cullimore responded by noting that the conversations conducted by the ethnic studies committee would incorporate the concerns of the public involved in the process.

Sophie Furse, a fifth grader in Davis County, said the standard was needed in order to help students of all backgrounds feel heard in their classes. She said she had a teacher who presented a narrow view of history in classes and limited discussions on the history of African Americans to slavery. But when a later teacher began including the perspectives of other races, it made her feel safer at school.

“My history is full of strong people that were powerful and brave, as well as others,” she said. “Please vote yes on this bill so that people of color can have their stories told in a true and accurate way so that all students can feel safe and heard in classrooms.”

Johnson’s bill was also on the agenda Monday, but debate was cut short after lawmakers voted to adjourn ahead of public comment.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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