Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
West Lake Junior High School student Deeda Lolin plays the viola during class in West Valley City on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The Utah State Board of Education voted 9-6 to drop the state requirement that students in grades seven and eight take health, physical education, arts, digital literacy and college-and-career readiness courses.

Local communities and the state have a responsibility to provide middle-school students with a well-rounded educational experience.

The State School Board’s recent decision to eliminate physical education, arts and health courses as core statewide requirements for middle-school students is seen as a way to give local districts more flexibility in designing curriculum, which is a positive development in the context of allowing more local control over education policy. But, in the context of guaranteeing that students receive an adequate education, the decision has potential consequences that deserve additional study.

The board opted to solicit public comment on the decision only after it was made by a vote of 9-6. Typically, we would expect a move of such import to be preceded by a campaign of ascertainment of public attitudes. Though, by accepting comment in the wake of the decision, the board may be implying it is not opposed to reconsidering the move, which ultimately may be in the state’s best interest.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides of the question, as was evident in a public hearing that drew a contentious discussion among a large audience of attendees. Advocates for keeping physical education classes as a requirement for graduation spoke of their importance in combating childhood obesity and other health problems.

Those supportive of arts classes talked about the value of requiring students to be exposed to fields of creative endeavor in which they may excel but would otherwise never explore. On the other side, supporters of the board’s approach spoke of the benefits of flexibility on the district level to more effectively contour curricula in ways that could actually enhance arts and health programs, as opposed to ushering them out the door.

Just what individual districts may do with newfound latitude is really the heart of the debate. Not all school districts are created equal. Smaller districts have a hard time now finding qualified teachers to lead arts programs, for example, and may find it expedient to cut back or eliminate such courses once they become optional. Districts may find themselves tempted to manage curriculum on the basis of market demand. They could claim justification in eliminating courses once required for all students if few students opt to take them in coming years.

We presume the state board’s decision is not an indication of diminished commitment to the concept of a well-rounded middle-school education. It’s important that schools make certain courses required, especially for students who are not yet at the stage of intellectual development where they can clearly map out a plan of study. Responsible parents rarely give children in their early teenage years complete autonomy, rather they allow curated opportunities for the exercise of meaningful personal agency. Instead of requiring students to “opt in” to arts and health classes, a better approach may be to structure policies to allow students to “opt out” of certain required courses, with the proper parental involvement.

The board deserves credit for working to seek balance between state-mandated core requirements and the ability of districts to manage schools based on their individual characteristics. But in the end, it’s the state’s duty to ensure that students in the formative years of adolescence are led along an educational path that offers exposure to a wide possible range of subjects.