21st February 2024

The Utah State Board of Education revised its “educational equity” rule during its Feb. 1 meeting to be in line with the state’s new anti-DEI law. But it was already on the chopping block prior to the law’s passage.

There were accusations that it was in conflict with a state law passed in 2023. And on Jan. 11, the board voted 8-7 to keep the rule, but they signaled changes could be coming.

The original rule defined educational equity as “acknowledging that all students are capable of learning and distributing resources to provide equal opportunities based upon the needs of each individual student. Equitable resources include funding, programs, policies, initiatives and supports that recognize each student’s unique background and school context to guarantee that all students have access to high-quality education.”

The rule is now called “Equal Opportunity in Education,” matching language in the new law, which was called “Equal Opportunity Initiatives.”

The phrase “educational equity” has been removed entirely. The new focus is defined as “acknowledging that all students are capable of learning and may need additional guidance, resources, and support based on their academic needs.”

During the board’s more than 7 hour discussion about the rule, board member Cindy Davis said, “ultimately, this is a training rule,” referencing training for educators.

Instead of instructing educators about “fostering a learning environment and workplace that are safe and respectful of all students and educators,” as was in the original rule, now training is to focus on creating “a learning environment which is safe, conducive to the learning process, and free from unnecessary disruption.”

The original rule also required educators to be trained in “implementing principles and strategies of inclusion, as they pertain to students and educators with diverse abilities and backgrounds.” The update focuses this section exclusively on students with disabilities.

And instead of promoting “viewpoint diversity,” educators are to be taught how to “promote the examination of various viewpoints on a topic in an impartial and politically neutral manner.”

The list of things that educators can’t be taught in professional training was expanded. The content now matches the list of “prohibited discriminatory practices” in the state’s anti-DEI law. This includes any training with diversity, equity and inclusion in its name.

Like the law, the updated rule says schools and districts can have offices or employees that provide support, guidance and resources to students, as long as they’re focused on all students.

Darlene McDonald, a community activist and director of 1Utah Project, was a vocal advocate for the original rule. While she was open to changing it, she said in a statement the amended version “is no longer a rule worth defending.”

McDonald said the original provided students, educators and schools with “the necessary tools to handle emerging social issues.” The new one, “is simply a copy and paste” of the state’s new law and strays from the original intent of the rule. She said the board should change the name of the rule “to reflect what it really is, Administrative Rule R277-328 Culture War in Schools.”

In an interview with KUER, McDonald said the decision felt like a “gut punch.” and offers less clarity. McDonald got emotional reading through what was deleted, including a line that required teachers to be trained on “acknowledging and respecting differences by looking for the good in everyone, including oneself, and showing due regard for feelings, rights, cultures, and traditions.”

After the board voted to keep the rule in January, she was hopeful about any possible changes. But what the board created is a completely new rule that undid all the work that went into creating the original in 2021.

The vote to adopt the amended version was 10-4. Board members Emily Green, Christina Boggess, Joseph Kerry and Natalie Cline were against it.

Boggess proposed they postpone making final changes until their meeting the next day given how long that day’s board meeting had been. But others didn’t want to leave it as unfinished business. Kerry also wanted to put the brakes on things since the new anti-DEI law had just been passed and he said the state’s higher education was still figuring out what this law meant for them.

“If there’s some unspoken reason why we’re, we’re moving like the barn’s on fire. I don’t understand it,” Kerry said.

Lawmakers had proposed a bill to reauthorize every state agency’s rules, except for the State Board of Education’s educational equity rule. That bill was circled the day before the board’s meeting. Per state code, the public can still weigh in on the amended rule for the next month.