Posted By Eric Ethington on December 3, 2013
Across the country, public schools are under a constant barrage of attacks, usually from conservatives who have an interest in pushing for school-privatization where they can make a profit. Over in deep-red Utah, one state senator is proposing a shiny new example of the latest attempt to empty public schools.
Back in August, Utah State Senator Aaron Osmond (fun fact: he’s Donny’s nephew) proposed doing away completely with mandatory education laws, arguing that kids and parents should take responsibility for their education rather than being forced by the state to be in a classroom. The idea received a lot of criticism (rightly so), and even earned the young senator a couple of jokes pointed his way on the Conan O’Brien Show.
Osmond is a very candid fellow and to his credit he made the media rounds, took the criticism, and discussed his idea with anyone who wanted to talk. On one radio show, he even admitted that eliminating compulsory education would likely damage his state’s business prospects, as companies aren’t likely to move to a state actively decreasing their educated workforce numbers.
Retreating from the heat, Osmond then said he was going to take a few months to speak with parents, teachers, stakeholders and other interested parties to refine his proposal.
Late yesterday, Mr. Osmond came back with his new packet of three proposed laws he intends to put forward during Utah’s upcoming legislative session.
Bill #1 – Creates new legal liabilities for parents, requiring that once their kids turn six they sign an affidavit declaring whether their children will attend public school, private school, or home school. It also exempts private schools and home schools from all measurement standards, testing, classroom time, reporting, and curriculum standards.
Bill #2 – If parents sign the affidavit and send their children to public schools, they will now have to sign additional contracts—legally agreeing to attend all parent teacher conferences, support any and all disciplinary measures taken by teachers, and to pay for all remediation or tutoring their children might need. Should students fail to meet academic standards, summer school or remediation will be mandatory (payed for by parents, remember). Should parents fail to meet their obligations as laid out in the contract they sign (ie.. if parents miss a parent teacher conference, or cannot afford to pay for remediation), the child could find themselves removed from the public school system.
Bill #3 – Parents and school districts can now choose the number of classroom hours they deem appropriate for children to attend.
So let’s break this down. First, there are zero requirements or levels of standards for private schools or home schools. In other words, the state is removing any and all interest in whether or not children outside the public education system are receiving a proper education. They’re being taught for only two hours per week, and the curriculum teaches the Pilgrims were fleeing Sweden to avoid King Shakespeare’s communist book The Art of War? Doesn’t matter. They’re outside the public school system so the state will no longer have any authority over what or how kids are taught.
Also, notice the massive amounts of new paperwork and legal obligations now in the way for parents who want to send their kids to neighborhood schools. While the idea of getting parents more involved with their children’s education is laudable, this is a barely-masked attempt to put so many barriers in front of public education that parents simply give up. Some students are going to do poorly, that’s inevitable and a result of a variety of factors. What happens when the single parent working two jobs can’t attend parent teacher conferences? Will their kids be simply kicked out of school, forcing home school (which they don’t have time for) or private school (which they can’t afford)? What happens if that same single parent working two jobs now has to come up with money to pay for remedial coursework?
Not all parents have their children’s best interests at heart. I think it’s inevitable that you’ll find quite a few parents who select a home school option simply out of convenience. Perhaps they have a five year old at home, so they pull the 13 year old out of school for a year to act as a babysitter. With no testing, standards, or measurement of how those kids are doing, their future can fly right out the window just because their parents needed a babysitter.
Utah is one of the top states for national conservative legislation to receive testing. With conservatives controlling over 80 percent of the state legislature, almost anything—no matter how radical—can be passed into law in order to gauge public reaction and emotional responses. If it flies through easily, it can begin to spread to other states. If it meets heavy resistance in Utah, conservatives know things need to be reworked before tried out again. It’s why organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council exists, to promote these model bills which will further their own business interests. In this instance, Osmond is working closely with the Sutherland Institute, one of two local affiliates of the Heritage Foundation’s State Policy Network. There are a lot of educational software companies in Utah (and more than one Utah lawmaker who owns stakes in them) who would love to see more kids get pushed into private or home schooling so they can sell more programs.
Back in 2007, Utah voters passed a statewide referendum to repeal the legislature’s recently-passed school voucher program. Since then, vouchers have become a (mostly) nonstarter conversation in the state. Since then, however, lawmakers have put heavy restrictions on citizen referendums—making it almost impossible for citizens to repeal a law they pass. Will Utahns muster up enough outrage to stop this new push for school privatization when the session starts in January? We’ll find out.