Feb 2, 2023 - News

Utah schools could be required to tout "superior" U.S. capitalism

Illustration of a flying eagle about to grab a book

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Utah high schoolers would be required to learn about the "superiority" of American free markets under new guidelines the state school board is considering this week.

Driving the news: Teachers would have to "explain why free market systems are superior and have made America the most free and prosperous country in the world" under new standards proposed for financial literacy courses.

  • All students are required to take the class to graduate from public high schools in Utah.

The big picture: The claims in the proposed standards are controversial among economists, social scientists and the public.

  • While polling suggests most Americans think the country is "among" the greatest, only a small minority believe it's the best. Nearly 60 countries got higher "freedom" ratings under the Freedom House Index, and the nation ranked 20th for prosperity, according to the investment firm Legatum.
  • Half of Americans surveyed by Pew in 2020 said the U.S. economic system needed "major" changes, and while "free enterprise" is popular, multiple polls indicate enthusiasm for capitalism is declining.

Of note: Many economists say that America is not truly a "free market" economy, pointing to limits created both by government regulation and corporate monopolies.

Between the lines: Those disagreements are what conservative State Board of Education member Natalie Cline said she wanted to elide by adding the provision in a January committee meeting.

  • Cline pointed to a state law requiring civics classes to teach "the benefits of a free enterprise system."
  • The addition will "make sure … [students] walk away without any question in their mind, regardless of how it might have been presented … that this is the superior system," Cline said.

Details: Under state law, the board must review statewide standards for financial literacy courses every three years.

  • Current guidelines, adopted in 2019, only require students to learn how different economic systems affect growth and don't address the "superiority" of any one system.

What they're saying: "It feels like … telling students what to believe … rather than helping them understand our free market and why it's beneficial to Americans," said Democrat Sarah Reale, who represents Salt Lake City on the board and has taught political science at Salt Lake Community College.

  • Reale, the only member who voted against the measure in committee, described it as "a statement that could be considered opinion."

Catch up quick: Utah's financial literacy classes, which the Legislature began requiring in 2007, have drawn scrutiny for outdated advice and occasional forays into non-financial, personal subject matter.

  • Salt Lake City students in 2017 received checklists of gender-specific dating advice, exhorting girls to "be feminine and lady-like."
  • A few months later, students in Roy were given "purity tests" in the class, with points for French kissing, having an abortion or answering yes when asked: "Even though you are straight, would you go kinky to see what it's like?"

What's next: The board could approve the new standards as early as Thursday.


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