SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah education officials say a state lawmaker's idea to scrap the state's compulsory education law would put already-vulnerable students further at risk.
Republican state Sen. Aaron Osmond of South Jordan recently floated the idea in a blog posting. He said giving teachers the option of sending students home when they consistently misbehave would force parents to better prepare their children for school and ease the burden on teachers who have become "surrogate parents."
Utah school board member Tami Pyfer said children who come from low-income homes and whose parents put a low priority on education would suffer the most from a repeal of the law.
"In a perfect world, every child lives in a middle-class home with no poverty and no hunger and two parents where mom stays home and dad works and everything is Beaver Cleaver,'" said Pyfer, of Logan. "But that is not how a lot of our children in Utah live."
Michael Clara, a Salt Lake School District board member, said Osmond is likely just trying to make a point and doubts the idea would ever pass the Legislature. Repealing the law would devastate low-income students, many of whom come from minority families, and create a subclass of people prone to a life of crime, he said.
"Education is really the key out of poverty. This would increase poverty," Clara said.
He and Pyfer also noted that public schools sometimes provide the best nutrition and most consistent medical care for certain students.
State education officials say there already are plenty of alternative to traditional public schools, including private and charter schools, home-schooling and online K-12 education.
Utah ranks at the bottom in the nation in per-pupil spending on education, according to a recent from the National Center for Education Statistics. Utah spent about $6,300 per student in fiscal 2011 - about $4,300 less than the national average.
Utah's state law requires parents to make sure children under 14 are enrolled in school and do not miss more than five days each school year. Failure to do so can lead to a meeting with school officials and even a misdemeanor in cases where parents intentionally fail to address their children's absences.
In a posting on the state Senate blog last Friday, Osmond wrote that the idea of forcing children to attend school is outdated and should be scrapped in favor of a system that encourages learning by choice. He is the nephew of famous singers Donny and Marie Osmond.
"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 wrote. "As a result, our teachers and schools have been forced to become surrogate parents, expected to do everything from behavioral counseling, to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex education, as well as ensuring full college and career readiness."
There was no mention in the posting of Osmond turning his idea into legislation, yet it has generated buzz throughout Utah and kicked off a wider debate about what responsibility parents have for their children's education.
The lawmaker did not immediately return a phone call Thursday from The Associated Press.
Dave Crandall, vice chairman of the state board of education, said he wants to speak with Osmond to learn more about what specific problem he's trying to solve. Crandall said he believes there may be a chance to loosen the law a bit, but said that total repeal of mandatory education is a long shot to pass the legislature.
He said changes could open the door for high school students who are ready to move on and for schools to have more flexibility to hold parents responsible for sending their kids to school ready to learn.
"The schools don't really have recourse if kids show up and aren't ready to participate," Crandall said.
Yet he also said the rule could have several negative consequences, especially for children from low-income families and for parents who rely on schools to watch their children during the week.
"We want to be careful to not make things worse," Crandall said.