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House ed committee advances bill policing ‘viewpoint neutrality’ in Utah classrooms

A screen capture of Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist as he explains his bill to the Utah House Education Committee, Feb. 12, 2024.
courtesy Utah House of Representatives
A screen capture of Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist as he explains his bill to the Utah House Education Committee, Feb. 12, 2024.

Utah lawmakers are considering a bill that would mandate neutrality in the state’s public schools.

It would prohibit teachers from having any symbols, like hanging a pride flag in their classroom, or saying anything that endorses, promotes or disparages a specific “political or social belief,” or “viewpoint regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.” They would also not be able to “invite, suggest, or encourage” a student to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as their religious, political or social beliefs.

Republican Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist told the House Education Committee on Feb. 12 that HB0303 is aimed at a “growing problem” and concerns some parents have about what their child might be hearing in school. He said this would reassure parents “that students are not being exposed to some political or ideological ideas that they may not agree with.”

Representatives from the Utah Education Association, the Utah School Superintendents Association, the Utah School Boards Association and the ACLU of Utah all said the bill was too vague and opposed it.

“Ambiguous language is a hazard for educators who won't know how the statute applies to them, and may end up facing disciplinary or licensure actions,” Sarah Jones with the Utah Education Association told the committee.

Similar concerns about clarity were brought up when this bill was discussed last November during an interim legislative committee meeting. Few changes have been made to the drafted legislation since that meeting.

Committee member, Republican Rep. Karen Peterson, asked Stenquist to define what he meant by “social belief” which is one of the categories that teachers can’t endorse or disparage. He struggled to answer and didn’t provide any guidelines.

“Maybe I'm not directly answering your question, but it's, you know, it's maybe not perfect. And I would hope that we're not trying to make perfect the enemy of good here.”

Stenquist said some viewpoints would be appropriate or inappropriate to share depending on the context and if it's relevant to the curriculum. He said the idea that “immigrants to this country enhance this country” would be appropriate in certain high school classes but wouldn’t be in a third-grade reading class. He added that a “good teacher” would have evidence and data to back that statement up, and it wouldn’t just be their opinion.

His example referenced an exchange Stenquist had on X, formerly known as Twitter, with Salt Lake City teacher and state school board candidate John Arthur. Arthur said he told his students that “immigrants enrich our community” and was “speaking of my own mother and the immigrant children in our class.” Stenquist responded that Arthur’s example wouldn’t be in violation of his bill, but refused to engage further online with him.

In the committee meeting, Democrat Rep. Carol Spackman Moss said she thinks the bill not only creates more distrust in teachers by questioning a teacher’s professionalism but also thinks it’s largely aimed at the LGBTQ+ community.

Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland took issue with that assertion and said it is not targeting anyone.

“I get really tired of hearing that we're targeting people,” Birkeland said. “We try to show kindness and compassion, and then we're told, but you're rejecting them. We're not.”

Birkeland said every child should feel like they belong in their classroom and said “that has to do with coming in and being spoken to with respect and dignity. It doesn't have anything to do with anything else in the classroom.”

There were few concrete examples shared during the committee meeting of what this bill might prevent from happening, other than preventing students from being exposed to “ideas” their parents may not agree with.

This legislation was sparked, Stenquist said, by a constituent who reached out to him because she said a teacher was having inappropriate conversations about gender identity with her first-grade student.

Stenquist had that constituent, Megan Kallas, tell the committee about her daughter’s teacher who “crossed the boundaries” and had a private conversation with her about the gender identity of another employee at the school. Kallas said the teacher had “many conversations that happened throughout the school year regarding sexual orientation and gender identity” with her daughter and other students.

Kevin Labresh, a school psychologist in the Davis School District, was against the bill and said a large portion of the students he meets with are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Labresh said he has a rainbow sticker in his office as an inclusive gesture. While he doesn’t point the sticker out to students, he said many of them bring it up on their own and say it's meaningful to them.

“I think we seem to confuse the idea of assuring someone that they are welcome with endorsing or promoting an idea. But nothing is being endorsed except the right for my students to exist and feel safe.

During last year’s legislative session, Stenquist ran a bill to prohibit discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 classrooms. It originally had language that matched Florida’s law that opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.” Stenquist changed the language in the bill, but it didn’t pass through the legislature.

His latest bill narrowly passed out of the committee on a 6-5 vote. Three Republicans joined the two Democrats on the committee in voting against it. It now goes to the full House for debate.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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