Utah political insiders wary of ending compulsory education

Published: Monday, July 29 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

The House of Representatives meet during the final day of legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City  Thursday, March 14, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) The House of Representatives meet during the final day of legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday, March 14, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to end compulsory education in Utah is receiving little love from state politicos, with a new insider survey showing both Republicans and Democrats opposed to changing school attendance laws.

In the latest UtahPolicy.com/KSL Political Insiders Survey posted Monday, 71 percent of Republican insiders and a unanimous 100 percent of Democratic insiders say lawmakers should not consider ending mandatory education for children.

Readers of UtahPolicy.com were also cold to the idea, with 68 percent opposed to ending compulsory education compared to 32 percent in favor.

The call for change was launched earlier this month by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, who wrote on the blog of the Utah Senate that he intended to bring forward legislation to repeal Utah's mandatory education laws. Osmond argued that compulsory education has caused parents to disengage from the responsibility of educating their children while also burdening schools with a laundry list of nonacademic social services.

Senator, Aaron Osmond discusses SB71 at a press conference Monday, March 4, 2013 at the Utah State Capitol.
 (Deseret News) Senator, Aaron Osmond discusses SB71 at a press conference Monday, March 4, 2013 at the Utah State Capitol. (Deseret News)

Bryan Schott, managing editor of UtahPolicy.com, said it is not uncommon for Democrats to oppose, en masse, an idea championed by a Republican lawmaker. But he said he was surprised at the level of opposition Osmond's proposal generated from fellow Republicans and readers.

"Even in our comments, a lot of people just thought it was daft, a lot of people thought it was a dumb idea," Schott said. "It seems that a lot of people thought this may have been a bridge too far, and that was very striking to me."

Schott emphasized that the insider survey is not a scientific survey but is designed to gauge the pulse of those individuals involved in Utah politics. He said 95 Republicans and 85 Democrats responded to the survey out of a pool of 200 lawmakers, lobbyists and party officials.

Osmond said he was not surprised by the survey results, or the feedback his proposal has generated, and added that one of the reasons he made his plans public months ahead of the legislative session was to begin a dialogue and work collaboratively with education officials on solutions.

He said his intent is not, and never was, to limit or block educational access to the state's at-risk students, but rather to question the efficacy of compulsory education, which emphasizes attendance rather than achievement.

"Clearly what we’re doing today is not working for them either," he said. "We need to create incentives and accountability so that when we get them to school, and we will, that there are opportunities to hold our parents accountable as well as our society accountable."

Comments left by survey respondents are kept anonymous by UtahPolicy.com, but several were posted along with the survey results.

"Not all parents are competent to make that decision and it is society that would suffer along with the individual child," wrote one political insider. "Parents should have the right, as they do, to home school."

But other participants suggested that while Osmond's proposal likely has little traction in the Legislature, it could be the beginning of valuable discussion on education policy.

"We won't end compulsory education in Utah, but the discussion won't hurt," a survey participant wrote. "It might help us examine current challenges to public education in a different light and shed light on possible solutions."

Osmond said he has received hundreds of emails, both in support and opposition to his proposal, and that he is grateful for the feedback. He said simply ending compulsory education is insufficient without establishing some type of safety net for students who fall through the cracks and he is now working with stakeholders to address how to best proceed.

"I had always planned to come out with a more detailed plan of what I’m actually going to propose," he said. "My next step is to meet with education leaders across the state, talk about the feedback we’ve received, talk about their concerns and propose solutions."

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who also serves as chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said he was "bewildered" and "stupefied" that even a minority of survey participants support ending compulsory education. He described Osmond's proposal as indefensible and compared it to repealing child labor laws.

"This is so basic. That there's even a discussion about it, should we be discussing whether cancer is good or bad?" Dabakis said. "This is a preposterous discussion, but it shows just how far to the extreme important elements of the Utah governing class have gone."

Dabakis said the choice of whether to attend school — and the consequences that follow that decision — should not be left up to a 13- or 14-year-old child, even in the name of greater liberty. He also said ending compulsory education would have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged children and Utah's at-risk populations.

"To portray this as freedom and not freedom is simply to confuse the issue," he said. "Nobody is against freedom. Nobody is against choice. What we are against is turning the clock back 150 years to the demise of public education."

But Paul Mero, president of the conservative public policy think tank the Sutherland Institute, said the argument over compulsory school attendance comes down to whether the state or a parent holds the primary responsibility for the education of a child. He said that despite the opposition to Osmond's proposal, very few people have made an argument why compulsory attendance laws are necessary in Utah.

"There’s implications and there’s assumptions in all of these comments about how crazy the idea is, but none of the comments make a real argument as to why you need compulsory attendance," he said. "The culture of education in Utah is vibrant and strong and there’s no reason to believe that ending compulsory education would change that culture."

When asked about the children who would fail to receive an education if the requirement to attend school was lifted, Mero said there will always be irresponsible, neglectful parents but those instances would be few and far between.

"I think when you start making laws on the exceptions, you get into trouble," he said. "The reality is nearly every parent in this state is not neglectful and actually cares about their child."

Osmond reiterated the need for a paradigm shift in regards to education, in that schooling should be seen as an opportunity instead of an obligation. Should his proposal become law, Utah would be the only state in the nation without compulsory attendance laws, which has resulted in interest from national media outlets.

"When we’re talking about something that is so significant a change from a social norm we’ve had for 130 years, it’s not surprising to me that across the country this would be a interesting topic and one of substantial divisiveness as well," Osmond said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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