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Utah PTA calls for veto of curriculum review bill

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 4:17 p.m. MDT

Utah Capitol Building.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Parent Teacher Association has joined in the call for a veto of SB257, a bill that expands the duties of a statewide test review committee to include the fielding of complaints related to curriculum and instructional materials.

In a letter Wednesday to Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah PTA accuses SB257 of failing to specify the role and scope of the review committee's new responsibilities, placing a potentially heavy burden on its volunteer members and bypassing local control of curriculum decisions.

"This legislation was pushed through (the Utah) House in the midnight hour without any House committee hearing taking place, debate was minimal, and the bill passed by 38-37 vote," the letter states. "It is easy to question whether such legislation is wise and reflects the best interest of the people of the state of Utah."

The Utah PTA is the first organization to formally support a veto of SB257, but individual parents — including members of the review committee — have voiced concerns about the bill.

"I don’t see how a parent from St. George reviewing complaints on curriculum in Cache County is going to solve anything," said Alean Hunt, a member of the review committee.

Nate McDonald, a spokesman for the governor's office, said the bill is under review. The State Board of Education will also discuss whether to request a veto of SB257 during its meeting Friday.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said feedback on SB257 has been mixed, but he believes some of the opposition is due to a misunderstanding of the legislation.

Stephenson said members of the review committee were under the impression they would be required to review all curriculum and instruction materials in the state, as they did with the state's new computer adaptive testing system.

"It would be inappropriate for the panel to hear a complaint about local instructional materials that hadn’t previously been reviewed by a local school board," he said. "(Complaints) should be fully vetted at the local level, and if people still have concerns, they should make an appeal."

Stephenson said, in hindsight, he should have put language in the bill specifying that the review committee would serve in an appellate capacity. He said if the bill is signed into law, he would consider sponsoring clarifying legislation next year, or those clarifications could be made by the State School Board through policy.

But Linda Hansen, an instructional materials commissioner for the state, said an appeals process already exists for curriculum decisions made at the local school district level.

When parents disagree with the decisions of their school board members, Hansen said, they have the power to elect new ones.

"If they don’t like what the school board person does, they can toss them out and get new people," she said. "That happens all the time."

Hansen said she has personally written to Herbert requesting a veto of SB257. She said the bill is shortsighted, neglecting the established process for developing curriculum and creating a new level of bureaucratic review that potentially overlaps with the Instructional Materials Commission on which she serves.

The commission, made up of parents and educators, meets twice a year to review curriculum standards and materials and make recommendations to school districts.

Under SB257, parents would be charged with reviewing any number of curriculum complaints but would have no power to act on their review, Hansen said.

"If someone complains to a group of parents, they don’t really have a way to resolve complaints except send it back to the school district," she said. "And that’s where complaints should go in the first place."

Stephenson said he sponsored his bill in response to lingering angst over the state's adoption of the Common Core State Standards, a series of educational benchmarks outlining the minimum skills a student should learn in each grade.

When the state developed a new testing system — to be used for the first time this spring — aligned with the Common Core, many parents were suspicious that test questions would include social and political biases, he said.

But after the 15-member review committee completed a weeklong, sequestered review of all test materials, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and helped restore trust in the testing system.

Stephenson said the success of that process suggests that a similar review of instructional materials would calm fears and alleviate concerns.

"I don’t remember when the public has been more suspicious of the core curriculum, the standards and the materials used to teach our children than they are today," Stephenson said.

No matter whether anti-Common Core suspicions are warranted, getting to the bottom of complaints will help the state move forward, he said.

"We should provide these kinds of opportunities for neutral third parties to vet those concerns so that we can get to the bottom of it and restore the confidence of the people in our educational process or uncover those areas where there truly are problems," Stephenson said. "In either case, I think we’re better off."

When asked about SB257's narrow passage during the final minutes of the legislative session, Stephenson said the late-hour debate only hindered what would have been broader support for the bill.

Representatives had little time to consider the merits of the bill, he said, and when in doubt, lawmakers are more inclined to vote 'no.'

"I think if they had had more time, there would have been a bigger margin of victory," he said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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