Guest opinion: Stop undermining public education
The Interim Education Committee 2023 of the Utah State Legislature discussed three bills in its Nov. 15 meeting that, at first glance, seem laudable. Who would object to removing pornographic materials from public schools? Shouldn’t teachers maintain neutrality regarding socially divisive topics such as religion, sexual orientation, race, or political affiliation? Requiring “micro school” facilities to meet basic safety standards and setting levels of occupancy also seems appropriate. However, all three bills raise serious concerns.
The sensitive materials bill has generated the most attention, as it mandates the immediate removal of materials from schools alleged to contain “objectively pornographic” content. No formal review is required, nor is the overall merit of the materials evaluated; only materials with “subjectively” offensive content require that review. If three school districts (or one district plus five charter schools) have banned the materials, they must be banned statewide. Reinstatement requires the submission of a petition to the state school board, which must then vote to overturn the ban.
The concerns are many. Even though the bill refers to a definition of “indecent public displays” in Utah code, federal courts have struggled to judge between protected free speech and a community’s right to censor obscenity. Second, decisions must “prioritize (the protection of) children from the harmful effects of illicit pornography over other considerations in evaluating instructional material,” essentially ignoring current requirements in law to consider their overall merit. Third, broader efforts to ban materials from schools have effectively worked to silence and erase minority communities. This bill’s focus on pornography may affect the LGBTQ+ community disproportionately. Finally, it is much easier to remove objectional materials than it is to reinstate them. Complaints by three individuals in different school districts can ensure a statewide ban, without a full review process. In contrast, the process for reinstatement is onerous.
The stated purpose of the neutrality bill is to “prohibit school officials and employees from endorsing, promoting, or disparaging certain beliefs or viewpoints.” Specifically, “(s)chool officials and employees may not: (i) use the official’s or employee’s position, through instruction, materials, or a display of symbols, images, or language to endorse, promote, or disparage … (or) (ii) invite, suggest or encourage a student to reconsider or change.” The list of things one cannot endorse, promote, disparage or encourage to change includes religious beliefs, gender identity/sexual orientation and political or social views.
Laudably, this bill aims to prohibit harassment and coercion related to controversial and sensitive issues. However, healthy discussion and debate are important to students and, more broadly, to society. The ability to think critically — an essential skill and the underlying goal of education — will be impaired without freedom to examine controversial issues from multiple viewpoints. The line between vigorous classroom discussion and perceived coercion is thin and subjective at best.
Importantly, this bill may also tie educators’ hands when confronted with clearly inappropriate student behavior. One suggested that a teacher should simply tell Tommy that he should talk to his parents about whether or not the racial, religious or homophobic slurs hurled at his elementary school classmates are appropriate. Ironically, Rep. Kera Birkeland, one of this bill’s supporters, recently recounted racial slurs aimed at her children, while noting that school administrators, unsurprisingly, failed to act.
Notably, this bill indemnifies and pays for the legal fees of anyone claiming harm through a violation of these restrictions. This open invitation to lawsuits will have a profoundly chilling effect on teachers and administrators already intimidated by the current environment.
Finally, the education entities bill defines “micro-education entites” and laudably codifies some basic facility standards. However, in doing so, the law gives these schools legal status and facilitates their proliferation. The sponsor’s examples included “schools” that provide tutoring or piano lessons. However, the rules apply more widely to what can loosely be described as group home schools — schools that are not held to any meaningful academic standards.
In summary, all three bills serve an agenda that seeks to undermine public education, tie the hands of educators and allow a handful of parents to dictate choices for all. Please encourage your representative to oppose these bills.
Ellen Brady, of Murray, is the issues director for the Women’s Democratic Club of Utah.