State senator proposes that Utah ditch compulsory education

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The idea of eliminating school attendance in Utah may seem unorthodox — but it is definitely on the minds of state legislators.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has begun a public discussion about the possibility of getting rid of compulsory education throughout the state, arguing that too much responsibility has fallen on schools to nurture and take care of children.

According to Osmond, the removal of compulsory education would open the door for alternative education options allowing families to decide which “type” of school would best suit the needs of their child. Hypothetically, schools would be focusing more on meeting the student’s actual needs rather than meeting standards such as requiring students to log a certain amount of classroom hours or even an amount of classroom years during their schooling.

State legislators meet for a special session in July. State Senator Aaron Osmond has proposed that state lawmakers drop Utah's current policy of compulsory education. Osmond has not, however, officially drafted a bill for consideration, and likely won't do so until the legislature meets again in January. (AP Photo by Rick Bowmer)
State legislators meet for a special session in July. State Senator Aaron Osmond has proposed that state lawmakers drop Utah’s current policy of compulsory education. (AP Photo by Rick Bowmer)

No official proposal has been made, but Osmond and his supporters are testing the waters by openly asking whether compulsory education benefits the state of Utah.

“Right now, compulsory education is not creating the culture we want in our schools and with our public education,” Osmond said. “The entire policy is about putting a butt in a seat rather than ensuring educational outcome.”

Osmond said he supports education and wants children to have schooling, but shifting the attitude toward learning from obligation to opportunity would make both parents and students take a more active role in the learning process.

“From my perspective, parents have relinquished responsibilities and have disengaged more and more over time,” Osmond said. “There are less people showing up for parent-teacher conferences throughout the state. Essentially, in our world today, parents are often too busy, yet there is continual frustration from parents about academic and behavioral issues.”

The Utah State Board of Education has established the standards K-12 students must meet for graduation since 1984. These core standards include students’ minimum level proficiency in all subjects and an acceptable attendance record.

Utah schools are currently required to conduct school for a minimum of 990 instructional hours and 180 instruction days per calendar year, according to the Utah Administrative Code. In a world without compulsory education, students would not be held to a minimum attendance standard.

Osmond said he is not suggesting Utah does away with public education entirely. Rather, current standards and requirements would be reevaluated and redesigned. Osmond said Utah’s public schools have strayed too far from their role as educators secondary to the parent, and too much responsibility has been delegated to teachers and administrators.

Much of Osmond’s argument, and the argument of many of his supporters, references the Utah State Legislature code— specifically, Section 62A-4a-201, which discusses the relationship and balance between parents, children and the state. This section emphasizes it is a parent’s responsibility to make sure their children are educated and the state steps in as a secondary resource.

In Osmond’s article, “A Practical Argument for Ending Compulsory Education in Utah,” published on The Senate Site blog, the state senator said schools have become overburdened:

“Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate, and even care for their child, is primarily the responsibility of the public school system,” Osmond’s article reads. “As a result, our teachers and schools have been forced to become surrogate parents.”

As schools carry the expectation to provide a wide range of services, concerns about funding come into play.

According to the Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education, Utah was ranked last in the nation for per-pupil spending during the 2009-2010 school year.

For current college students, it may be difficult to imagine a society without compulsory education. The majority of BYU’s student body is made up by individuals whose state laws required them to be in school every day.

“I think this is an interesting concept, because I believe it is important for kids to develop relationships with the teachers they are with all day,” said Chelsea Luke, a junior from Athens, Ohio. “But at the same time, you need to draw the line somewhere. Schools can’t be responsible for everything.”

If a bill were to pass, one of the factors under consideration would be how it might affect at-risk and underprivileged children in the state.

According to Osmond, the two populations most at-risk in public schools are students who speak English as a second language and those whose families are at an economic disadvantage due to a lack of finances. Osmond said these two groups are the “very groups compulsory education is failing,” and they are not being pulled through the school system successfully.

According to Osmond, there is a 47 percent graduation rate in these above-mentioned populations within the state.

However, others are worried if children aren’t required to attend school, they won’t come at all.

“I think taking away compulsory education would greatly disrupt the learning process in lower class and impoverished families within the state,” said Steve Buckholz, an environmental geology major at BYU. “Many lower class families are forced to work incredible amounts of hours during the week, making them physically incapable of devoting much of their time to helping their kids with school.”

Some state legislators have spoken about encouraging and ensuring school attendance with financial incentives and benefit packages. These options haven’t been specified, but have been talked about as a way to restructure the way people view educational opportunities.

Osmond compared hypothetical school attendance in future years to current Utah kindergarten enrollment. Approximately 94 percent of kindergarten-age children in the state are enrolled in kindergarten, despite the fact that there is no legal requirement to do so. He believes a similar majority of parents would continue to send their children to school, even if not mandated by law. Ideally, those who “want” to learn would still be present in the classroom, he said.

Osmond’s goal is to talk to as many people as possible about Utah’s education system and how they feel it is working before proposing an official bill in the state’s next legislative session in January.

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