The debate over critical race theory, or CRT, continues to rage throughout the country, and Utah is one of many states in the fray.
Katie Matheson, communications director for Alliance for a Better Utah, a non-profit advocacy and accountability group, says the organization is keeping a close watch on the current activity surrounding CRT.
“A lot of our time is spent watching the legislature during the 45-day session plus the extra sessions that happen … and kind of translating what is happening to the general public and also advocating in public for certain policies to pass that we think will make Utah a better state,” Matheson explained.
The issue is causing contentious debates among parents, educators and lawmakers, and is now shaping policy. Some opponents of the ban are labeling CRT as the latest culture war.
“As much as Utah really prides itself in some ways as doing things the Utah way and separating themselves from Washington D.C. politics … there are times when we don’t,” Matheson stated. “There are times when we fall victim to the national fever around a certain, often culture war issue and some folks in Utah pick up the banner of that particular culture war issue and they will ride it all the way home.”
Activity on the hill
The definition of CRT is muddy with some lawmakers. Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore of South Jordan, who sponsored S.R. 901, is on record stating, “I have no idea what [CRT] is.”
However, GOP lawmakers called an extraordinary special session in May and passed two identical resolutions that prohibit the teaching of CRT in Utah’s K-12 schools. The move prompted a walkout by Democratic representatives.
Many educators in the state also voiced opposition to the resolutions.
Mark Hunstman, president of the Utah State Board of Education, told KUTV that CRT in the classroom is a “false narrative” and that teachers are “growing tired of being accused of teaching lessons that undercut American values.”
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, GOP Rep. Steve Christiansen of West Jordan, who sponsored the House resolution, made accusations that some Utah teachers are vowing to teach CRT if bans are put in place, saying, “we need legislation to provide penalties for teachers who don’t abide by the law.”
Matheson worries about the consequences of any legislation banning CRT will have on education and educators.
“There’s a lot of concerns about what will likely come from this regarding the ambiguous language,” Matheson said. “There’s concern about whether or not … teachers will be able to accurately talk about the realities, for example, [of] the school to prison pipeline, or talk about the realities of disproportionate impacts on students of different demographics and different backgrounds.”
Many educators have stated that CRT is not part of the K-12 curriculum, with the Utah State Board of Education releasing an official statement on June 3, leaving many to wonder why this issue has taken up so much bandwidth.
“The resolution was necessary because of an outpouring of concerns from parents in the state expressing frustration with certain concepts being taught in our schools,” Christiansen told The Globe. Christiansen said the intent of H.R. 901 was “to communicate strong recommendations to the Utah State Board of Education as to certain concepts the legislature believes should and should not be included in K-12 public education curriculum standards in the state of Utah.”
Part of the urgency of taking on CRT during the special session, Christiansen explained, was to encourage the state board to get policy adjustments in place before the upcoming school year.
Christiansen described CRT as divisive, citing “… [CRT] suggests that existing laws and institutions in the U.S. are systemically and irredeemably racist, that whites are oppressors (white supremacy), and Blacks are oppressed. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that current discrimination is needed to compensate for past discrimination.”
Christiansen continued, “The problem, however, is that the theory is sometimes grounded in historical inaccuracies and proposes solutions that conflict existing law (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended). My personal belief is that solutions that unite, rather than divide and seek to destroy our constitutional fabric and institutions, are better options in terms of continuing our progress toward the ideal espoused in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal.’”
Matheson, who is also a parent, said she worries that students will lack the basic knowledge about the realities of our history and the realities of how that history is still living today.
“Racism isn’t a thing that existed in the 1960s, and then we had the civil rights movement and now it’s all gone,” Matheson explained. “We still see impacts of racism that permeates our systems that have existed through today. In asking to talk about it — not even in school, outside of school for example … we’re not asking young white children to take that all on themselves and take the blame for it. What we’re asking them to do is acknowledging the realities of it so they can then be the change that we all want to see.”
To find out how higher education is responding to the CRT debate, click here.