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What does Utah mean when it says it wants ‘individual freedom’ in education?

Educators and students hold signs outside of the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Feb. 17, 2023, protesting legislation passed during the 2023 Utah Legislative Session.
Martha Harris
Educators and students hold signs outside of the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Feb. 17, 2023, protesting legislation passed during the 2023 Utah Legislative Session.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill this session requiring all public schools to talk about racism, sexism and oppression in a way that is consistent with certain “principles of individual freedom” and that everyone is “equal before the law.”

Educators are concerned about how HB427 will be implemented and are asking Gov. Spencer Cox to veto it.

Republican sponsor Rep. Tim Jimenez said schools and teachers should be having conversations with students about discrimination within society, like racism and sexism. His intent with the bill, however, is to make sure that students don’t feel like they are being told they are inherently oppressed or an oppressor because of their race or sex.

“I guess you could say, not be accused unfairly of sins of the past and sins that are going on right now,” Jiminez said. “The last thing you want to do is tell a student that they are a certain way just because of their race or their sex. That’s certainly not true, we’re all individuals.”

In addition to applying to what educators teach and what’s in instructional materials, the bill also applies to professional learning, administrative functions and displays. However, the bill does not define what these terms mean.

Other principles of individual freedom that educators would be required to abide by include; that no race is inherently superior or inferior, that “meritocracy or character, including hard work ethic, are not racist nor associated with or inconsistent with any racial or ethnic group” — and that individuals are not responsible for what people of their same race or sex have done in the past.

The bill also states no individual should be discriminated against because of their “race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, or sexual orientation.” Senate Democrats tried to add “gender identity” to the protected list, but Republican floor sponsor Sen. Michael Kennedy was only open to the change if Democrats would vote in favor of the bill if the amendment passed.

Sen. Karen Kwan was not willing to make that deal. Kwan said the amendment would make the bill a little bit better, but it would still be harmful to some children.

Jiminez said he drew the bill’s individual freedom principles from U.S. founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence, as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His hope for putting this language in state code was to support educators and give them a framework for having difficult discussions about sexism and racism.

Other states have similar legislation. Florida passed the Individual Freedom Act in 2022, which was much more expansive than Utah’s version. A federal judge later blocked parts of the law from being enforced. Jiminez said he looked at what other states have passed but didn’t feel comfortable using everything from those bills.

“I've changed kind of what some of those other states have done because I thought it was a little punitive and harsh. I wanted to be able to have discussions,” he said.

The Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, is calling for Gov. Cox to veto the bill rather than sign it. On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office said the bill is still in the review process and they had no comment on whether he intends to sign or veto it.

Sara Jones, the director of government relations and professional programs for the association, said they have several concerns with the bill, but mainly how subjective and vague the language is. When asked what teachers can and can’t do, Jones said she doesn’t know.

“Our concern is that the result will be that educators may hesitate to discuss anything that might be potentially misinterpreted by a student, or by a parent, or by an administrator as violating the statute.”

If teachers don’t feel they are able to discuss different ideas and opinions in their classroom, Jones is worried students will not be exposed to critical thinking skills.

Jones also said the bill is unnecessary because the state has already dealt with these issues. The association's letter to Cox cites resolutions that the state House and Senate passed in 2021 dealing with critical race theory in schools, as well as the Utah State Board of Education’s Educational Equity in Schools policy.

During a March 9 Utah State Board of Education meeting, board member Brent Strate commented on how a lot of what is in HB427 is already in state rules. Before it was even passed, the state board recommended lawmakers hold off on passing this bill, as well as several others.

East High School language arts teacher Elyse Arrington is still trying to understand the bill.

“It does leave interpretation up to parents and families. And teachers, I'm sure, are just sitting in complete and utter paralysis of like, ‘what can I say? What can I not say?’”

Arrington also teaches a literature class about hip hop and protest. She said she always finds the edited, clean versions of song lyrics and students examine them critically, discuss what is said about society and how the medium is being used to get a message across.

“It's a class that students want to take for various reasons. They feel seen, they feel heard,” Arrington said. “For some kids, too, it's the first time they're coming to a language arts class and realizing, ‘Oh, wait a second, I can do this, I can read this, I can analyze this text.’”

She’s worried that a lot of the songs, curriculum, articles and literature she uses could be perceived as defying the bill if someone just saw them on a syllabus and didn’t have the context on how they are being used.

This is the first year for the class and it’s already full for next year, according to Arrington. But as of now, and how she is interpreting the bill, Arrington doesn’t plan to change what she is doing.

“I'm not pushing any belief system. I'm not indoctrinating. I'm not making any one of my class feel any type of way,” she said. “I think what does change is just there's going to be looming fear.”

Arrington thinks this bill will sow fear in teachers because it sends a message that they should not be trusted and that they are pushing an agenda. In order for learning to happen, Arrington said there needs to be a feeling of safety and trust in a classroom.

If educators don’t know how to interpret this bill and are afraid, she worries that out of an abundance of caution, teachers will eliminate everything from their classroom that could potentially be viewed as controversial.

“If my students of color [are] not seeing themselves represented in the curriculum, not seeing themselves represented in the literature we read, the history that we talk about and the facts and the truth behind those historical events that includes them. I think that leaving that out seems like adverse treatment,” Arrington said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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