SALT LAKE CITY — Physical education, health, the arts, and college and career readiness courses will no longer be core requirements in Utah middle schools under a policy change adopted by a divided Utah State Board of Education.
Over objections of some board members who described the policy as "not ready for prime time" and others who said the change will deprive some youths from exposure to activities that could enrich their school experience, the board voted 9-6 on Friday to amend the policy.
Backers of the change said the amended policy will give school districts and charter schools more flexibility and enhance local control.
"I like giving the freedom to the (local education agencies). I reached out to parents because ultimately it’s their children that we service, and parents really liked having this freedom and having this opportunity to choose in the best interest of their children and to allow their children to choose," said board member Michelle Boulter.
Board member Carol Lear said she, too, believes in choice and freedom.
"But I believe in choice and freedom for the poorest among us. This is one of our few very directed responsibilities. If we don’t have enough opportunity for children to have choice, they’ll never be able to take an orchestra class. They’ll never be able to be in a PE class because the very smallest school districts and charter schools will not add to their curriculum because they can’t afford it. So I believe in choice for children more than choice for parents," Lear said.
Others argued that the policy wasn't ready for a final vote. The rule change, up for a third reading, was on the board's general consent calendar until one board member asked to consider it separately.
"When you look at the responsibility of the state board of education to set standards, to establish the statewide requirements, this is one our big jobs," said board member Brittney Cummins.
"We shouldn’t take it lightly just to pass something. Why has PE been a requirement? Why has health been required in the past? Have we even thought about what was there? We shake our heads and say, ‘Oh, it’s irrelevant to my kid.’ But why was it there in the first place? We haven’t had that conversation. We haven’t talked about its value," Cummins said.
Board member Linda Hansen reminded the board that the proposed policy change had been before the board on two previous occasions.
"The first time I voted against it. Last time I voted for it, and I’ve been kind of on the fence, but I’ll tell you what changed my mind from the first time to the second time. I talked to all of my (local education agencies). I talked to all my charters and all my districts, and they all like this," she said.
Hansen said she's confident that school districts and charters "will do what they need to do."
The districts and charters can establish their own requirements in addition to the remaining state middle school core requirements, which are language arts, mathematics, integrated science, U.S. history and Utah history.
"Don’t panic," Hansen said.
The new policy says school districts or charter schools "shall offer" the following courses aligned with core standards in seventh and eighth grades: at least two of five arts courses, including visual arts, music, dance, theater or media arts; physical education; health education; college and career awareness; and as of the 2018-19 school year, digital literacy, and at least one of the world languages.
Board member Spencer Stokes suggested returning the proposed rule change to the board's Standards and Assessment Committee one more time to work out language and other issues board members said were problematic.
"I don’t have a problem with the concept of this. I think that it’s the right thing to do. All I have a problem with is, if we have this much discussion and this much back and forth on language, I don’t think it’s ready for prime time," he said.
Jennifer Graviet asked fellow board members if they were "OK letting go of standards."
If so, "we need to have the standard discussion. Are they valuable or are they not? To me, I see standards and I see them as opportunities. I can tell you many stories of 12- and 13-year-olds who were forced to take a music class and then chose the school play in high school over baseball as they got older but never would have known that about themselves if they had not been forced to expose themselves to something new," Graviet said.
Later in the meeting — after Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, shared with the State School Board the main reasons youths utilize the SafeUT app, which gives youths confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors or school staff to submit tips about perceived threats — Cummins expressed "sorrow" about the board dropping health as a middle school core subject.
Some of the primary reasons youths ages 10 to 18 access the app are bullying, relationships, drugs, self harm, suicide and other mental health issues.
"Our board just voted to make health an elective in seventh and eighth grade. So I am grateful for this app as an opportunity for those students to have access to concerns they might have with mental health, with self harm and things that they're struggling with because they're going to need it. I don't see health as being one of those places that students say, 'Yeah, sign me up for that class,'" Cummins said.
But board member Alisa Ellis said the policy change gives people more of an opportunity to "follow their passions."
Fundamentally, it's an issue of freedom, she said.
"We talk about it. We run on it. We say we believe in it. But when it comes down to it, we're often scared to move on because somebody might fail. We have to stop thinking that way because nobody can succeed if we’re constantly worried about not letting people stumble along the way," Ellis said.
"That’s part of freedom, and part of the American dream is allowing people the opportunity to think outside the box. I hope we see that with this."