Utah ‘educational equity’ rule faces repeal as state GOP links it to critical race theory

Jan 10, 2024, 9:09 PM

Betty Sawyer joins educators and community activists in protesting Utah lawmakers’ plans to pass ...

Betty Sawyer joins educators and community activists in protesting Utah lawmakers’ plans to pass resolutions encouraging a ban of critical race theory concepts outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, as counterprotesters stand behind her. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Critical race theory simmers on as a point of conflict in Utah.

A Utah Board of Education rule governing training of teachers on issues related to race and inclusion has come under fire by the Utah Republican Party as a means of injecting critical race theory into public schools, and now faces repeal. Three board members also oppose the rule, R277-328, saying it conflicts with a measure passed by Utah lawmakers earlier this year, HB427, that’s meant to make sure teaching in Utah schools is consistent with a series of “principles of individual freedom.”

Defenders of R277-328 — the Educational Equity in Schools rule — are pushing back, saying they’re planning to speak out in favor of the rule at the board’s meeting on Thursday. That’s when state education officials are to consider axing it.

To link the rule to critical race theory “is ridiculous,” said Betty Sawyer, head of the Ogden branch of the NAACP. “We’ve never taught critical race theory in public education. To even tie that to public education is a far stretch.”

Critical race theory is a framework of understanding racial issues and racism in the United States, academics say, while foes in Utah see it as a belief system based in part on the idea that there is an oppressor class in U.S. society, generally white people, and an oppressed class, generally people of color.

Rae Duckworth, chairwoman of Black Lives Matter in Utah, said, as she sees it, R277-238 aims to foster a welcoming tone in schools, make all students feel comfortable and safe in their classrooms. She also rejects the idea the rule is tied to critical race theory, as well as the belief of some critical race theory foes that the system has seeped into Utah’s K-12 education system.

If the rule is repealed the classroom setting “just will not be safe,” Duckworth said. “It will not be safe for children with disabilities. It will not be safe for brown and Black children. It will not be safe for children who fall underneath a lower level of economic status. It will impact every single child in our schools and it’s not pretty.”

Utah Education Association President Renée Pinkney, also a backer, cited the provision of the rule that calls for approval of “educational equity” curriculum in open and public meetings. Educational equity encompasses providing “equal opportunities (in schools) based upon the need of each individual student,” the rule reads, though critics view “equity” as a codeword for critical race theory-like policies.

Crafting the policies in an open setting, Pinkney said, gives teachers assurances they’ve been properly vetted, reducing potential backlash they could face. The policies themselves, she added, aid in creating a productive classroom atmosphere and in setting boundaries on discussions of hot-button topics related to racial, cultural and other differences. The Utah Education Association represents teachers across Utah.

Students and families “must feel welcome, and schools must foster a strong sense of belonging. When students feel valued and can participate in rich, meaningful discussions about current events, ideas and points of view, their curiosity and creativity come alive,” she said. “The equity rule provides educators with guidelines around classroom discussions.”

The three Board of Education members who are seeking repeal of R277-328 — Emily Green of Cedar City, Joseph Kerry of Ogden and Christina Boggess of Taylorsville — did not respond to KSL.com queries seeking comment. Material in the Board of Education meeting packet for Thursday, however, states the rule “is in conflict” with HB427, passed in the 2023 legislative session, and, accordingly, “should be repealed.”

HB427, among many other things, requires school districts provide assurances each year to the Board of Education that their teachings are consistent with a range of principles, including some that align with critics’ concerns with critical race theory. Teachings, the law reads, must be consistent with the notion “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions that other members of the same race or sex committed in the past or present.”

The Utah Republican Party State Central Committee last October adopted a resolution expressing support for repeal of R277-328 based on what members of the body believe to be its connection to critical race theory. One of the resolution’s preambular clauses states that the Utah Board of Education, in approving the rule on Aug. 8, 2021, “installed, codified and further entrenched the Praxis of CRT into Utah’s schools.”

The resolution blasts critical race theory as a “religion.” “One who is baptized into the CRT infrastructure is officially an ‘antiracist,’ and any action or thought in contravention to the ‘antiracist’ doctrine renders one a ‘racist’ who must be called out and disciplined within the framework,” the resolution reads.

Last October’s resolution also referenced a letter last September from Rep. Tim Jimenez and Sen. Mike Kennedy, the HB427 sponsors. In it, the Republican lawmakers express “profound concern” over the lack of action in repealing R277-328 notwithstanding the provisions of their bill. “We find this unacceptable, and so do our constituents,” they wrote in the letter.

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Utah ‘educational equity’ rule faces repeal as state GOP links it to critical race theory