I think it’s better if we can find ways to engage parents in schools in positive ways and encourage these parent-teacher partnerships and not have to legislate what parents will do and what they will pay for if they don’t do it. It can just come across, I think, as punitive or heavy-handed if you’re not careful. —Tami Pyfer, member of the State School Board
SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, sent a shot across the bow of Utah schools in July by calling for an end to compulsory education laws.
His proposal was short on specifics at the time, but in an article posted Sunday on UtahPolicy.com, Osmond outlined his plans to address compulsory education in Utah, including three separate bills he intends to sponsor during the 2014 legislative session.
The bills would not do away with the requirement that Utah children receive an education, but instead would allow flexibility in the time students spend in class in exchange for a more formal indication of support by parents.
The bills would also require extra schooling for underperforming students, potentially at the expense of their parents.
Osmond said he supports compulsory education in the context that every child in the state receives an education. But he said schools should focus less on attendance and more on academic excellence and accountability.
"My whole focus here is about bringing clarity to that," he said. "We do need to ensure that every child receives an education in the state, but we need to approach it in a different way.
Under the first bill, Utah parents would be required to formally indicate by affidavit whether they intend to enroll their child in public, private or home schooling. Parents who choose to home-school would be exempt from state educational requirements, such as classroom time, testing and curriculum standards.
Under the second bill, parents who enroll their children in public schools would be required to sign a participation contract, agreeing to accept district attendance policies, help their child with homework, attend parent-teacher conferences and support classroom disciplinary measures.
A Parents Bill of Rights would be created, affirming a parent's power to have their child repeat a grade or test out of subjects for credit. But students who fail to achieve academic proficiency would be required to participate in remediation, the cost of which would be charged in full or in part to their parents.
Under the third bill, the statewide requirement that students attend school for 180 days each year would be repealed in place of locally developed classroom requirements at the district level.
"Right now, in the public education system, there is not a feeling that parents are accountable, that there is an obligation for them as well as for the student and the teacher," Osmond said. "And that’s what we’re trying to address."
Osmond's initial proposal to end compulsory education made national headlines and was met with skepticism locally. A nonscientific UtahPolcy.com/KSL Political Insiders Survey found that 71 percent of Republican insiders and a unanimous 100 percent of Democrat insiders were opposed to changing school attendance laws.
Readers of UtahPolicy.com were also opposed to the idea by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent.
But Osmond's latest proposal would not end compulsory education since students would still be required to attend either public, private or home school. It would, however, lift the 180-day attendance requirement, often referred to as "seat time," and move the state closer to a system of competency-based, rather than calendar-based advancement.
Tami Pyfer, a member of the State School Board, said much of Osmond's proposal already exists in current statute. She said parents are already expected to indicate to their local district if they intend to home-school their child and those who do are exempt from state educational requirements.
"They don’t have to report how much time they spend in instruction, they don’t have to meet any curriculum standards, they don’t participate in testing or any reporting," she said. "That’s already in place. I think some of this (bill proposal) is unnecessary or maybe a little redundant."
Pyfer said she appreciates Osmond's efforts to engage parents in their children's education, but she worries that some of the efforts he is proposing are excessive.
Parents are not typically asked to pay for summer school or remediation, she said, and to include language that requires students to either meet proficiency benchmarks or pay for tutoring places an added burden on children who, for whatever reason, are struggling in school.
"I think it’s better if we can find ways to engage parents in schools in positive ways and encourage these parent-teacher partnerships and not have to legislate what parents will do and what they will pay for if they don’t do it," she said. "It can just come across, I think, as punitive or heavy-handed if you’re not careful."
She also said that lifting the 180-day attendance requirement is unnecessary since the State Office of Education already grants waivers to districts based on local needs — such as Rich County School District, which operates a four-day school week.
"That’s not a major shift," she said. "It would be interesting to see how far away from a certain number of days or hours the senator believes we could go and still meet the demands for performance that the Legislature is putting upon us."
State School Board member David Thomas said the combination of a parent contract and Parents Bill of Rights is an innovative way to encourage engagement in education. He also said he wouldn't necessarily be opposed to a more formal process for parents to choose a public, private or home school option for their children.
But he shared Pyfer's concerns about charging parents for the cost of summer school and remediation, adding that many students who fail to meet academic proficiency attend Title I schools that serve low-income populations.
"I’m not sure that parents could afford the remediation costs," he said. "I’d be looking for, perhaps in his bill, some kind of fee waiver from those provisions."
Osmond said the remediation requirement would include an exemption for students with disabilities and individual education plans. He also said it would be up to local school districts to determine what portion of remediation costs a family would pay based on financial ability.
He added that part of what the bill seeks to change is the current attitude toward schooling. Public education costs taxpayers billions of dollars, he said, and every child in the state is given access free of charge.
But he said for those students and parents who fail to take advantage and utilize the opportunity of public education, there needs to be accountability and an obligation to share in the cost of remediation.
"We can’t afford to have (education) treated like an entitlement," he said. "It’s an opportunity. It’s something that we want to provide for every student. But if you take advantage of that, there is accountability, both for the parent and the student."
Osmond said he will continue to seek feedback and input on his bills from educators and constituents. He said there is a general consensus that there needs to be greater accountability and engagement in education, but the task now is to determine the best method to address those needs.
Thomas said that he is also interested in moving toward competency-based education and thinks there are many aspects of Osmond's proposal that could be worked on collaboratively with the State School Board.
"Senator Osmond has been very good about trying to bring groups together in a wide variety of spheres to come up with solutions to public education," Thomas said. "I think that’s laudable, and I, for one, appreciate his ability to do that."