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Utah educators question state Sen. Aaron Osmond's assertion that the state shouldn't force students to go to school, saying they are concerned about children who might miss out on an education or forfeit help with other challenges.

The South Jordan Republican raised his proposal on the state Senate blog Friday.

"In a country founded on the principles of personal freedom and unalienable rights, no parent should be forced by the government to send their child to school under threat of fines and jail time," he wrote.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, the chair of the committee overseeing school spending, said Wednesday the concept is worth investigating. The current "factory model" of educating all students under the same requirements is not working, he said.

"There's a lot of benefits and risks" to the idea, said Stephenson, R-Draper.

But State Superintendent Martell Menlove said Utah parents already have choices. Besides home schooling, Utah also has online K-12 options.

"I think we have great opportunities now for parents who choose to send their children to school or not send their children to school," he said.

The Home School Legal Defense Association considers Utah a "low-regulation" state. Parents are required to file an annual affidavit with their school district pledging to instruct them in the same subjects taught in public school for the same length of time.

The state does not require testing for those students, inspect parents' curriculum or police whether the affidavits are filed.

Osmond argued that public school now forces teachers to become "surrogate parents, expected to do everything from behavioral counseling to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex education ... Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate, and even care for their child, is primarily the responsibility of the public school system."

He advocates changing to an outcome-based education system, which focuses on completing assignments and passing exams rather than spending a certain number of hours in class.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, praised Osmond's proposal as a "great idea" that puts responsibility on parents for non-academic issues.

But Utah leaders should consider how many families can take on home schooling or afford other options, such as day care, said Mary Burbank, director of the Urban Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Utah.

"If not, then what are the ramifications there?" Burbank said. "It's multifaceted, with a ripple effect."

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, echoed the concern that without the oversight schools provide, some students could fall behind.

Having equal access to education is key for poor families to break out of poverty, she added. "Not everyone might have a highly educated, Ph.D. mom or dad," she said. For students who do not, "what might happen to that child?"

Salt Lake City School board member Michael Clara, who represents an area with a large Latino population, called the Osmond's idea a "publicity stunt."

"He's trying to make a point: let's have students volunteer [to attend] because parents are not taking education seriously," Clara said. "But the cure would be worse than the disease."

Clara said with the district's already high drop-out rate among Latino teens, such a law would create a "subclass of illiterates on a large scale."

Instead, education officials should do more to alert parents about their children's educational needs, such as letting parents know it's not OK to have older students stay home to provide childcare, or to move students to different schools every time parents can't pay rent, he said.

The district's "community hubs" help by connecting students and families to additional services outside academics, such as medical and dental care, he noted.

While lauding Osmond for bringing up the concept early — and noting Osmond is a supporter of quality education — University of Utah Board of Trustees Chair Clark Ivory said that without a set of expectations, the state's problem with student preparedness for higher education could get worse.

"It's sort of a risky thing to think about, not having students [complete] certain requirements," he said. "Who knows what the preparation would be?"

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, fears repealing compulsory education could make Utah's poor reputation in education worse. The state has the lowest per-pupil spending in the country.

"What would this do to the image of our state?" she said.

Tribune reporter Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report. —

Utah's compulsory education law

It's a class B misdemeanor in Utah law for the parent of a child under age 14 to intentionally or recklessly fail to enroll them in school or refuse to meet with school authorities after receiving notice of a compulsory education violation. However, the law notes several exemptions, including home schooling and illness.