SALT LAKE CITY — Discussion on Utah Senator John JohnsonThe proposal to ban the teaching of “dividing concepts” in Utah schools came to an abrupt end during a Senate Education Committee Meeting after a fellow lawmaker moved to adjourn the rally amid debate.
It was late Monday afternoon, and Johnson said Tuesday that Senate Bill 257 will not progress as the 2022 legislature winds down before its end on Friday.
Still, he plans to submit the proposal for further discussion at an interim session this summer. And if nothing else, Johnson, a Republican from North Ogden and chair of the education committee, has been upping the ante on education issues this session, drawing fire from some.
Besides SB 257, he sponsored another measure, SB-157, intended to give parents more leeway to prevent the teaching of “objectionable” material to their children in schools. A film he helped fund that claimed critical race theory is embedded in Utah schools, “Identity Marxism: The Rise of Critical Race Theory,” premiered Feb. 18.
During the session, Johnson, a professor at Utah State University, said he was considering legislation aimed at critical race theory. Last Friday, he took the plunge and introduced SB 257. The legislation does not specifically mention critical race theory, but would ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” in public schools.
Enemies like Johnson see critical race theory as a curriculum taught in schools that aims to reinforce notions that there are oppressive and oppressed classes in the nation, among other things. Others, like the American Bar Association, say such characterizations are off the mark. Rather, according to the ABA, critical race theory is a way of understanding issues of race and racism and how they have evolved and become embedded in “the fabric of this nation.”
Although not mentioning critical race theory, SB 257 does contain a long list of what are considered “dividing concepts” that may not be taught in the classroom. They include the notion “that an individual, by virtue of their trait of identity, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, nationalist or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously”.
Johnson, by way of explanation, told the Standard-Examiner that telling a student “that he is responsible for slavery is not fair.” Likewise, he says, telling another student that he is a victim is also not right.
“There is no reason to start a race war. There is no reason to have a political debate that divides our schools,” Johnson said.
Another of the many concepts that could not be taught, according to SB 257, is the notion “that an individual should experience discomfort, guilt, anguish, or some other form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s identity trait. Also prohibited from teaching is the idea “that the state or the United States is fundamentally, systematically, or irredeemably racist, sexist, or nationalist.”
In introductory remarks at Monday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Johnson said SB 257 was not “crushing” history. “It is important that we look at history. We don’t mind looking at the story, the warts and all that,” he said.
Utah Senator Ann Millner, a Republican from Ogden and member of the education committee, led the discussion, apparently arguing the difficulty of identifying “dividing” concepts. In a classroom setting, she says, one student may understand a concept offered by an instructor one way while another student may see it another way.
“We all have different lenses through which we look at things,” she said.
The discussion didn’t make much headway, though an array of witnesses were willing to testify on behalf of Johnson’s measure, he said. Senator Kathleen Riebea Democrat from Cottonwood Heights, moved to adjourn the meeting, committee members voted 3-2 in favor of the motion, and the rally abruptly ended.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that the people who have been waiting here all night couldn’t speak at all,” Johnson said in response to the vote.
SB 157, which did not gain popularity during the session, drew criticism from a representative of the Utah Education Association, Sara Jones, who described it as a measure intended to solve a problem that does not exist. Parents already have the power to prevent the teaching of “objectionable” material to their children, she said, particularly when it comes to health and sex education.