U.S. History of Civics part 6: Utah’s story

July 23, 2020

The following essay is part 6 – the final installment – in a series that discusses the history of civics education in America.

U.S. History of Civics part 1: The Founders’ vision — ‘What species of knowledge can be equally important?’

U.S. History of Civics part 2: School reforms for COVID-19 point us to successful ed reformers in American history

U.S. History of Civics part 3: The ‘birth certificate’ of social studies

U.S. History of Civics part 4: The U.S. Department of Education (as we know it) is born

U.S. History of Civics part 5: The early 2000s to the year 2020

Utah celebrates Pioneer Day every July. It’s a holiday to honor the pioneers – early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – who fled religious persecution in order to live out the ideals promised in America’s founding documents but not yet realized. As a religious minority, they would ultimately find that freedom in Utah.

The story arc of the pioneer settlement in the Territory of Utah is intertwined with efforts to shape education in the region. How Utah schools developed reflects a larger narrative about the struggle for religious liberty as well as how schools fared in fulfilling the civic mission that the American Founders once envisioned.


The saints arrive in the Utah Territory and teach their children

After months of traveling across the country, the pioneers arrived in the Utah valley on July 24, 1847. Because learning was an important element of their religion, the settlers sought to educate their children, which at the time was a private endeavor. Children were either taught by their parents, or teachers who were hired by their parents and community members, and instruction included Latter-day Saint religious teachings and scripture. In the 1850s and 1860s schools were largely organized around wards (geographical Latter-day Saint congregations), and during the week, church buildings were used for school. Church leadership believed that schooling had a spiritual mission as much as the American Founders aspired to schooling with a civic purpose.

Early on, settlers wanted to call the area the state of Deseret state of Deseret until the Utah Territory – named after the Ute Indian Tribe – was created in the Compromise of 1850. That same year, settlers established a school called the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah.

In 1851, the Territorial Legislature approved the first public school law in Utah creating the office of the territorial superintendent.  It also called for local taxes to help pay for schooling (though families still paid tuition) but not for teacher salaries.


The push for free schools and anti-Mormon education

Over time a debate grew in the area about providing “free” schools for children paid for by taxes, as was seen in other places in the country. Many politicians and prominent Latter-day Saints advocated for free schools in the territory, but church leaders largely opposed the idea.

In 1865, Governor Charles Durkee championed free school, saying that the “territory should be taxed to defray all expenses of the education of its children.”

With so many pushing for tax-supported schools, Brigham Young addressed the topic in 1877, at the St. George temple:

I am opposed to free education as much as I am opposed to taking away property from one man and giving it to another who knows not how to take care of it. … Would I encourage free education by taxation? No, that is not in keeping with our work.

In 1890, the Territorial Legislature created publicly supported territorial district schools with the passage of Utah’s first Free Public School Act.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, migrants to the area who were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought to change the heavy “Mormon” influence in the territory’s schools. Many of the migrants were members of the Protestant and Methodist faith, who sought to build “mission” schools with the purpose of developing an education for their own children and to “teach and convert young Mormon children” in hopes that they would convert away from their religion. Most of these mission schools disappeared after a public school system was put in place, but their legacy highlights the tension felt due to the Mormon influence in education.

Ultimately, such conflicts over education in the territory were settled in the Utah Constitution as drafted in 1895 (there are seven iterations of the state constitution), a document which was heavily influenced by the federal government’s preferences for mainstream American culture and the political/legal battles over practice of polygamy.

One of the key ways the federal government tried to reduce church influence in education was through state constitutional provisions regarding the public education system. According to the Utah Constitution, schools must be free of sectarian (religious) control, they were to be “free” or tax supported, and void of religious or political tests for teacher employment or student admission in public schools.

The constitution also included a type of Blaine Amendment, which said that public funds could not go to schools controlled by a religious organization. Today many states still have a Blaine Amendment in their state constitutions. They are a vestige of a failed federal amendment rooted in explicitly anti-Catholic sentiment; in the Utah Constitution the provision served a similar but anti-Mormon purpose. With these provisions in place, statehood was granted in 1896.


Utah schools during the progressive era and mid-20th century

During the next several decades, Utah education policy largely followed the national trajectory.

In the twentieth century, church leaders created and phased out a religious private school system while Utah on the whole adopted some features of the education seen across the nation, including the centralization of education and increased funding.  

These changes were seen as promoting societal benefits, an idea popularized in part by American education reformers like John Dewey.

Because national defense became a countrywide priority in the 1950s and again in the 1980s, national and federal voices continued to influence Utah’s education policy during the mid-twentieth century. This was the case for teachers as well. In the 1960s, teachers in Utah joined national calls for increased compensation. In the 1980s, Utah schools started to adopt other widespread reforms like improving graduation requirements or making new decisions about curriculum.

The federal government had also began a serious focus on standards and outcomes in education in the 1990s, which would lead to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001, requiring standards and statewide testing in math and reading in order to meet “annual yearly progress.” Many national education groups expressed concerns that the emphasis on national defense as well as math and reading over the years had reduced time for the social studies – to the detriment of schools’ civic mission.


The early 2000s brings a Utah-specific effort in civic and character education

In the early 2000s, Utah pushed to promote civic education at the state level and engaged in national efforts to promote it. In 2000, the Utah State Legislature enacted a new law that required teaching the importance and history of the American flag and mandating the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary schools (only encouraging it at the secondary level).

In 2003, Congress funded a national push for greater emphasis in civic education, leading to the creation of the National Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which invited delegates from all 50 states to four annual convenings to discuss civic education. That same year, the Utah State Legislature created The Utah Coalition for Civic, Character and Service Learning, which consisted of groups and universities who sought to help Utah K-12 and higher education focus on the basics of civics through events, lessons and training.

The following year, the Utah State Legislature passed HB 22 (Civic and Character Education in Schools), which says the “legislature recognizes that civic and character education are fundamental elements of the public education system’s core mission” and that “civic and character education are fundamental elements of the constitutional responsibilities of public education and shall be a continuing emphasis and focus in public schools.”

This law says that students should be taught through an “integrated curriculum” – alongside regular schoolwork – “respect for and an understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of Utah.” But the law lacks an enforcement mechanism, so in practice it can easily be overlooked.

Two years later, in 2006, the Utah Legislature created a civic education commission led by the lieutenant governor. The commission was charged with leading the state’s focus on civic and character education and making policy recommendations. Each school district, as well as the State Charter School Board, was required to submit a report on civics education efforts to the lieutenant governor and the commission. Last year, the state discontinued this civics commission, but the law still requires the Utah State Board of Education to give a report to the Education Interim Committee.


The Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Legislature during the 2010s

Today Utah continues to craft policy in civics education at both the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) and the Utah State Legislature level as well as local efforts.

For instance, the USBE creates academic standards and statewide assessments. And pursuant to a law passed in 2000, the USBE was charged with creating a core curriculum. In 2012, the board adopted a version of the Common Core state standards (today called the Utah Core Standards) as incentivized by a federal grant program. Roughly every five years, the board updates these academic standards.

The last Social Studies Standards revision process – which includes civic education, or United States Government and Citizenship standards – was completed in Utah in 2016. According to the USBE, the state civic education core standards are created such that Utah children learn about civics concepts starting in kindergarten and every year following through high school. A U.S. government class is also currently required in high school. The USBE reports to the education interim committee on civcs and character education in the state and hosts conferences on civics each year.

The Legislature has periodically passed civics education reform throughout the years. In 2011 Utah passed a law that instructed the USBE and local school boards to review whether curricula had effective instruction in American history and government. This included instruction in different forms of government, like a republic versus a monarchy, as well as economic instruction about capitalism.

Knowing that historical site visits can have an important impact on students, during the 2013 General Session, the Legislature established funding for field trips to the state Capitol. Resources now flow to the Capitol Preservation Board, which hosts tours. As of 2018, this fund amounted to more than $250,000 annually.

The American Civics Education Initiative passed the Utah Legislature in 2015, which requires high school students to pass a basic civics test in order to receive their diploma. The civics test uses 50 questions from the United States Customs and Immigration Services citizenship test, part of the naturalization process for immigrants. Utah legislators during the 2020 legislative session debated whether to eliminate the test requirement, but the effort failed. Instead, that year the Legislature created a pilot program for civic engagement projects based on the concept of “action civics.”

A local effort called Better Days 2020 has also recently pushed a public awareness campaign on Utah women’s history and created a companion curriculum for teachers.

As Utah continues to consider national events and state academic outcomes, the discussion about civics education will continue to ramp up. The public and policymakers can make a difference in the trajectory of civics education as they learn from the past and look to the future.

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