SALT LAKE CITY — A sometimes heated discussion over the civics and American history concepts students learn in Utah schools is ramping up as the Legislative session winds down.
A bill that would require teachers in Utah to teach that the United States is a "constitutional compound republic" is just a Senate approval and a governor's signature away from becoming a law. Meanwhile, a bill that would prescribe civics curriculum statewide lies in waiting.
Opponents argue correct and proper instruction is already in place, and that the advancing bills advance a political agenda.
Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, alleges the term "democracy" has all but replaced the word "republic" in school instruction.
Morley is the sponsor of HB220, amends a statute regarding the study of American history to include the phrase: "Instruction in American history and government shall include the study of: forms of government, such as a democracy, monarchy, and oligarchy; and the United States' form of government, a republic." It advanced out of a Senate committee Friday and now goes to the Senate floor.
"We need to have a thorough and correct study of the form of government we have," Morley said.
Opponents argue his bill and others like it interfere with the control and supervision of education, which is the constitutional charge of the State Board of Education.
"I think curricular issues are not legislative issues," said board member Carol Murphy, at a board meeting Thursday.
The board formally opposed the legislation, saying it was unnecessary. That's a position it also took against a bill by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, that goes even further to dictate how civics education is taught in the state.
Sandstrom's HB322 would create a seven-member civics curriculum advisory board appointed by the governor with recommendations from the Legislature. The advisory board would create an entire curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Board member Leslie Castle said the legislative interest in civic education instruction seems to be more about politics and less about making sure children are receiving a balanced education.
"It seems like the school curriculum should not be a part of the power struggle," she said. "For them to politicize the school curriculum is very dangerous and frightening."
Called the "Restoration of American Heritage Curriculum," Sandstorm's bill details concepts and principles that are "essential for perpetuating the American Republic." It includes a long list of concepts and "war heros" that need to be taught to children every year of their public education.
The prescribed list includes dozens of founding fathers as well as a substantial section on "the role of religion in founding America."
Sandstrom's bill states that children should be taught the material in a way "appropriate for each age group," but requires that they be taught them every year. That concerns curriculum experts like Brenda Hales, associate state superintendent for instructional services.
"It's silly to talk about the Articles of Confederation with kindergartners," she said.
Hales said all the concepts in Sandstrom's bill are currently being taught in Utah schools, albeit it in a more age-appropriate format that builds from year to year rather than detailing everything every year.
"If you walk into any elementary in this state today, they know that Washington and Lincoln are heroes they should look up to," she said.
Hales said legislation like Morley's and Sandstrom's have cropped up nationwide.
"This is a very popular agenda item," she said. "It's a response to a fear that I don't think is true. ...These are not concepts that are being neglected at all."
Morley told the Senate committee on Friday his bill isn't political in nature, and is geared toward ensuring children are taught correct principles.
"This has nothing to do with political parties," he said. "It has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat."
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