In response to the uproar over critical race theory, the Utah Board of Education has approved a new set of standards that spell out what teachers can — and especially what they cannot — say to their students about ethnicity, inclusion, equity and culture.
The rules came after more than four hours of tense and, at times, emotional debate Thursday evening, with one member choking up as he said the all-white and right-leaning school board needed to be more conscious of students “who are vulnerable and marginalized.”
That touched off a sharp backlash, though, from an outspoken conservative member who argued that the word “marginalized” shouldn’t even be used in the teaching standards because it’s too politically charged. She also urged the board to use the term “varying” instead of “diverse” to describe students’ viewpoints and backgrounds.
“It’s less controversial and prone to being twisted,” said Natalie Cline, who has long been an opponent of critical race theory and has stated that she believes white students are being shamed in the classroom.
There were 25 amendments like that, with sparring over the specific language of the standards. And the back-and-forth squabbling exposed the ideological division of the board before the group passed a final iteration around 8 p.m. that largely adheres to what opponents of teaching students too much about the nation’s history of racism have sought.
The discussion was a smaller-scale version of what’s been going on across the country. And when it came to an end, the board’s vice chair, exasperated, called the vote to finally approve the new rules “nothing short of an absolute miracle.”
The state school board has been working for months to update its standards around trainings for all teachers statewide on topics like equity and diversity.
But the project was hijacked when the Utah Legislature passed two resolutions last month instructing the 15-member board that oversees education policy in the state to include in its efforts a ban on teaching “harmful” critical race theory concepts in K-12 schools — even though it has never been taught in Utah.
“They said they would take further action if we didn’t,” noted board member Scott Hansen, who has spearheaded the effort to include the parameters in the standards. Though the state didn’t give the board a timeline, Hansen said there was pressure to take on the topic now.
What the standards say about race
While critical race theory first emerged in the 1970s, those on the political right have recently latched onto it as a threat to the nation’s children, arguing that it inappropriately inserts race into classroom instruction that should be colorblind.
The theory is an academic framework that pinpoints racism as the defining feature of the United States, shaping the country’s founding and current legal system. But Republican lawmakers in Utah — and in at least eight other states — say it’s used to divide the country, and they’ve moved to ban it in the classroom. (The concept has often been misinterpreted, however.)
The resolution from Utah’s Capitol Hill called for a ban on any class materials that would teach that one race is “inherently superior or inferior” to another and that people’s moral character is influenced by their race. And they pointed to white students today allegedly being blamed for slavery in the past.
The Utah Board of Education’s new rules — which would take effect in the next school year — mirror that suggested language almost identically, prohibiting teachers from those kinds of discussions.
And they go one step further: They also require that no teacher instruct that students bear responsibility for the past actions of any individuals of their race. There’s no evidence that has been occurring.
“We have parents worried,” Hansen said, “about kids being indoctrinated by controversial concepts.”
Board member James Moss said the rules protect all students, those who are white and those who are not. “You wouldn’t ask a student of Japanese descent, ” he noted, “to take responsibility for Pearl Harbor.”
But Moss said there are districts in the country where white students are being made to feel inferior in similar situations. That could include in discussions of the Civil War, reparations and the current protests over police brutality toward individuals of color. The rules, he said, are an attempt to avoid that, avoid hurting feelings — but not avoid talking about challenging topics.
“This is not intended to squelch discussion,” he said.
Board member Brent Strate, though, questioned where the line would be drawn and how teachers would know. He said the rules are vague. As a history teacher, for instance, he used to have students take sides with Adam Smith’s views on capitalism versus Karl Marx’s philosophy on communism.
“Teachers have been called in and raked over the coals for things like that,” he said. “And this doesn’t help. This won’t stop that kind of thing from happening.”
Moss countered that teachers aren’t stopped under the rules from asking a student’s opinion on something or having a debate in class. The rules specifically say that teachers can still host discussions on “events, ideas, attitudes, beliefs or concepts.”
What crosses the line, he said, is promoting or endorsing any kind of racial hierarchy.
What else is in the rules?
The guidelines certainly adopt the standard rhetoric of those opposed to critical race theory — and even bolster it in places. But the rules include more than just that.
Hansen believes there are things that those on both sides of the debate can be happy about.
The five-page-long standards start by listing requirements for new trainings for teachers that all districts and charters provide. This was the original intention behind the rules before critical race theory curriculum got tangled into them.
The first provision is instructing educators on how to create safe and respectful learning environments. Strate pushed for that to be at the top. And it explicitly includes having teachers acknowledge “differences by looking for the good in everyone, including oneself, and showing due regard for feelings, rights, cultures and traditions.”
Hansen said the point isn’t to be entirely colorblind, as some who oppose critical race theory propose.
In the rules, inclusion, too, is defined broadly as “ensuring all students feel a sense of belonging and support.” There are specific references to students with learning or other disabilities.
Board member Janet Cannon said that was something she pushed for as the mother of a son with disabilities and the grandmother of a kid with Down syndrome. Vice Chair Cindy Davis said she wanted gender in the rules because her daughter was bullied by boys after being the fastest runner in her second grade class.
The board wanted “an expansive view of diversity, rather than focusing just on race,” Hansen noted.
Additionally, along with not discriminating or promoting a race, teachers are also banned in their curriculum from endorsing a religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. “We actually added on it and improved upon it,” Hansen said about the direction from the Legislature.
Several efforts to make the policies more stringent or more right-leaning were voted down.
At one point, Cline moved to add a line to the standards that would set up a discipline process for teachers who break the rules. That did not pass.
She also tried to add lines that would bar teachers from identifying groups as the “oppressor” or the “oppressed,” which is common rhetoric used by those against critical race theory. That also did not pass, nor did her recommendation to require teachers have “a solid understanding of the original intent of the Constitution.”
The standards also incorporate a recent and progressive resolution by the board denouncing racism.
What does the public say?
Before the board voted on the new standards, it heard from several members of the public on both sides of the debate.
During the comment period, 20 people spoke about teaching on race in the classroom. Four opposed critical race theory. The others supported a healthy discussion about the nation’s history — and that included a group of fifth graders, all students of color at west Salt Lake City’s Rose Park Elementary, who asked the board not to ban any topics.
“If someone is different than you, it doesn’t mean you should treat them differently,” one of the kids said.
“We want to stop racism,” added another.
Teachers logged onto to the electronic meeting, too, to share their thoughts.
John Arthur, Utah’s 2021 Teacher of the Year whose class at Meadowlark Elementary on Salt Lake City’s west side is mostly kids of color, implored the board not to treat race and discussions of racism as taboo.
“There’s nothing wrong with learning,” he said. “Somehow, people found a way to spoil these beautiful words like ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity.’ It’s up to us, as reasonable people, to recognize that cannot stand. These ideas need to be upheld. Otherwise, learning for our students will suffer.”
Rozanna Benally-Sagg, a Native American member of the state’s committee for inclusion in education, added that “it’s important to see vulnerable kids.” Without acknowledging differences, she said, those who are at a disadvantage because of the way the country is set up — such as those who are homeless or refugees who don’t speak English — will be further left behind in the classroom.
Parents also said their kids have learned about both the good and bad in America, and it didn’t make them hate their homeland — as some opposed to critical race theory have suggested would happen.
But those on the other side disagreed. Parent Katy Johnson called discussions about racism “a cancer.”
“It’s dangerous and divisive,” she said. “It’s not un-American but anti-American.”
Others called it “ideological gobbledygook,” “racist propaganda,” and something “straight out of the Marxist playbook.”
Steve Henderson, who is involved with the group Utah Parents United that has pushed for the state to ban critical race theory in K-12 schools, added: “We feel the story of America is improving the system, not one of racism itself.”
The board has received hundreds of emails, too, on the subject, including 111 just last week, when a committee voted to move the rules to the full board. Most of those sided with the parents opposed to critical race theory. And powerful voices in Utah politics have joined them, including Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Burgess Owens.
What happens next?
Though the board has finalized the rules, there is still time for more public feedback.
The approved standards will now have a 30-day cooling-off period.
During that time, if 10 or more people request a public hearing, the board is required to hold one and listen to concerns. Members can choose to make adjustments after that or leave the rules as they are.
The rules also state that parents who are worried can request a copy of their district’s training for teachers and curriculum on race once the standards take effect.
Much of the actual decisions on what will and won’t be taught will be up to those local districts and charters to decide. That was by design, said board member Molly Hart.
“I just believe that they are in the best position to decide what they need to do for the students and the teachers,” she said during the meeting Thursday. “That’s something that they need to figure out. I think they’re in different places and spaces with equity. Their students are different. Their communities are different.”