Data Mining

This article appeared in USA Today and illustrates the creep of the federal government into data collection on our families. I hope this worries enough legislators that they will partner with the Utah State Board of Education as we requested in our recent Resolution 2013-03. Our board rules already prohibit the sharing of sensitive, private student data. We would like laws to codify that notion even better.

Read the article about where the data creep will end up next…

Utah GOP email list ethics

I’m not sure if it is the State or the County GOP, but why is one candidate given the email list of delegates, but not others? I have received multiple delegate emails directly from the James Evans campaign (Friends of James Evans) – and I know from experience candidates are not supposed to have direct access to the email list. That’s why most of their messages come through the official GOP email distribution list.

Personally, I don’t have a problem receiving email directly from candidates. In this day it is not a big deal. My problem – and it is a huge problem – is the party officers and staff giving a significant email advantage to one hand picked candidate and not the others.

Of course, I don’t have anything against James personally – I would feel the same even if I was the candidate with the advantage myself. It just isn’t right. This kind of thing gives credibility when we are accused of hypocrisy, as we often are.

One Size Fits All?

As I have fielded inquiries and criticisms from people around the state for my explanations of the role the State Board of Education plays, it has become increasingly apparent to me that some of the strongest opponents of Utah’s core standards are people who don’t want any standards at all.  Some of them have children that don’t even attend public schools, and therefore are not subject to the standards we are required to implement, anyway.  But as I have dialogued with them I have come to realize part of the opposition to the standards the board adopted is exactly what I described above: it is an opposition to ANY standards – and the criticism of the new standards naturally follows.  This, I believe, is the reason I repeatedly hear and read comments imploring us to reject a “one size fits all” approach to public education.  Whether the standards are adopted by a teacher in a single classroom, by a district, by the State Board of Education (as is currently required by law), or at the federal level (which I certainly oppose) – any standards are a “one size fits all” approach.  So what follows here is an explanation sent to me recently.  I’m posting it to clarify some misconceptions, at least I hope it will…

The words “Standards” and “Standardization” do not mean the same thing!  Utah’s core standards are not used to standardize and inhibit student progress. They are used as standard benchmarks used to help students gauge progress toward fulfilling their individual aspirations.

The purpose of Utah’s core standards is not to drive everyone to achieve the same specific goals for each student or for them to achieve at the same pace. It is not designed to promote sameness. Teachers are to use the standards much like a physician uses developmental standards to understand and plan for each child’s needs. The standards are used to help teachers understand in a broad manner what individual children should be able to know and do at each grade level. They are used to benchmark and not judge progress. Our goal is to optimize learning for each student. It is hard to know where an individual student needs assistance or advancement if there are no standards to measure their unique progress.

Goals without benchmarks, action steps or standards invite mediocrity, sameness, and failure. To reach a goal or destination you must know where you are, where you want to go and how you are going to get there. Without standards you cannot answer critical educational questions about each individual student. How do you become literate? What is mathematics literacy for a Utah student? Measuring individual student progress toward literacy proficiency and mathematics proficiency is impossible without standards.

Standards are tools for individual teachers and individual students. The Utah core standards are intended to help students become innovative, to excel and to compete with their peers. Students need effective communication, literacy, and numeracy skills if they want to be ready to compete in the emerging global marketplace, at a college or university, or in occupational certificate programs after high school. The standards help Utah students and parents understand and acquire the essential knowledge, concepts, and skills within critical content areas often chosen by parents and student. They are like a set of building codes. They help teachers build an individualized curriculum that is solid and designed according to the learning styles and needs of each student. They define what students should know and do to be college and career ready.

Utah’s core standards do not dictate the materials, teaching style, or curriculum to be used by the teacher. They do inform what should be taught, but in the context of determining what students know and then responding to their individual needs. If a school or district forces students to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way, they have a major instructional problem not a standards problem. A teacher who teaches page 65 on Monday and then page 66 to everyone on Tuesday, without thought or knowledge of what individuals or groups need, is a technician not a teacher. Differentiation of instruction that embraces diversity, creativity and personal excellence is an essential expectation of all educators. It is, in fact, an educator standard. Failure to teach what kids need to know is usually a preventable instructional tragedy that can be remedied if teachers understand the expected standard.

Utah has had core standards for decades. The Utah Core is to be taught with respect to differences in learning styles, rates, and individual capabilities. Locally-selected textbooks and teacher-produced materials are used as tools in implementing the core. Local school districts and charter schools control employing teachers and often set locally-determined curriculum, methods and pedagogy to be used in classrooms. State standards help us ensure students are measured against a stable target. They help districts and charter schools develop and provide high quality curriculum and courses. The new standards are based on rigorous post-secondary and career-ready expectations. Data shows that students need literacy and numeracy skills that will help them be ready to compete in the emerging global marketplace. This expectation is just as important for young people who enroll in occupational certificate programs after high school; success in these programs and in on-the-job training requires the skills and knowledge embedded in the core standards.

Local schools and teachers control the curriculum and instruction. The core standards do not dictate the curriculum or delivery of content. Utah’s core standards and the curricula are not the same. The curriculum includes content, instructional elements, methods, pedagogy, materials and resources that are used to teach the high standards Utah has adopted. The standards help teachers organize and prepare for instruction just like building codes help an architect prepare a blueprint. Homes built using building standards or codes are not identical. They are built based on the individual needs and values of the owner but still use the code. The curricula used to implement the core standards vary according to district or charter and the individual needs of students. Locally-selected textbooks are used as tools in implementing the core. At a state level, research-based strategies and materials are recommended, not mandated, leaving the final instructional decisions to districts, charter schools, and classroom teachers. Local stakeholders will continue to innovate and make improvements to their curriculum over time. Teachers are not restricted to a specific grade level or timeline of standards. If children need to review or move slower, the teacher is in command. If students need to go faster or further the same applies.

Utah’s Core Standards – Background

I receive so many questions about why such divergent information is circulating in regard to Utah’s core standards, so I decided I would publish some verifiable facts here on my blog. Here’s a good place to start: the background on Utah’s core standards.

Utah’s public education system keeps its state constitutional promise to “secure and perpetuate” freedom for all Utah children by ensuring literacy and numeracy; providing high quality instruction; establishing curriculum with high standards and relevance; and requiring effective assessment. These principles were adopted by the Utah State Board of Education On August 7, 2009 as a part of the Board’s formal declaration of vision and mission, Promises to Keep, and were codified by the Utah State Legislature in 2012 (UCA 53A-1a-103).

Article X, Section 3 of the Utah Constitution places general control and supervision of the public schools under the State Board of Education, and Section 53A-1-402(1)(b) and (c), directs the Board to make rules regarding competency levels, graduation requirements, curriculum, and instruction requirements. In accordance with these regulations, the Utah State Board of Education has, since 1984, adopted standards in all curriculum areas. The standards help Utah teachers ensure literacy and numeracy for Utah students by defining the essential knowledge, concepts, and skills to be mastered at each grade level or within critical content areas. They are like a set of building codes. They define what students should know and do to be ready for post-high school jobs and schooling. Standards ensure accountability, set the bar for student achievement, provide transparency in program expectations, and inform assessments. They help teachers and leaders understand what they are accountable for teaching, and help students understand what they are accountable to learn.

Utah has a five-to-seven-year revision cycle for core standards. The standards are revised and upgraded on a regular basis. Revisions are based on the need to ensure that students learn what they need to know to be successful after graduating from high school. Utah has complete control over the Utah Core Standards, this includes the newly adopted math and English language arts standards. Changes can, and will be made as needs for Utah students are identified, such as the new standards in handwriting/ cursive which have been proposed and are now available for public comment.

Contrary to what many are claiming, the “Common Core” (a set of standards in math and English language arts) is not a curriculum, an assessment system, a method of collecting data, nor a federal program. It is a set of content standards that Utah adopted as part of their own Utah Core Standards in 2010. These standards, along with standards in place in all other academic areas such as science, social studies, health, fine arts, etc., make up the Utah Core Standards. While local charters and school districts have purview over the curriculum, materials, and instructional methods – or “educational program” – used in their schools/district, all schools in the state are expected to teach to the minimum competency levels outlined in the Utah Core Standards.
What does a standard look like?
Here are just a few specific standards in the new English language arts and mathematics core:
-Reading 1st grade: Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.
-Reading 5th grade: Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact)
-Language 2nd grade: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing; Capitalize holidays, product names, and geographic names; Use commas in greetings and closings of letters; Use an apostrophe to form contractions and frequently occurring possessives; Generalize learned spelling patterns when writing words; Consult reference materials, including beginning dictionaries, as needed to check and correct spellings.
-Math 4th grade: use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems; gain familiarity with factors and multiples; generate and analyze patterns; understand decimal notation for fractions and compare decimal fractions; solve problems involving measurement from a larger unit to a smaller unit.
-Math 7th grade: Draw, Construct, and Describe geometrical figures and describe the relationships between them; Apply and extend previous understandings of operations with fractions to add, subtract, multiply, and divide rational numbers

A complete listing of all standards in all core areas can be found at:

How have the new Core Standards in math and English language changed?

The standards that Utah adopted in 2010 are more rigorous than previous standards.
 In English language arts, the standards place more emphasis on writing and critical thinking skills, as well as encouraging increased use of informational texts such as the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. The study of these types of informational texts should be happening in addition to the reading and writing that is currently occurring in English and literature classes. For example, in social studies or government courses, teachers should be encouraging the use of primary source documents both to teach content and to improve students’ ability to read and understand these types of expository texts. Literature and other material from the classics will still be the main area of emphasis for English teachers.

 The new mathematics standards, as described by Dr. Elmina Alibegovic of the University of Utah, “allow for development of connections between the mathematical ideas students have traditionally seen as disconnected. This, in turn, improves their understanding as well as the skills necessary for success in college and careers.” The new math standards require teachers to teach toward a deeper level of understanding on critical math skills so that by high school, students are more successful in those math classes which will eliminate the need for remediation at the college level. The new standards in both mathematics and English language arts are supported by professors at Utah institutes of higher education as well as various community organizations concerned about economic development and public education issues.

Timeline and History of Common Core Adoption in Utah

Utah has a five-to-seven-year revision cycle for core standards. The standards are revised and upgraded on a regular basis. Revisions are based on the need to ensure that students learn what they need to know to be successful after graduating from high school. The former core in mathematics was adopted in 2007, and the former core in reading/language arts was adopted in 2003. The new cores were adopted in August 2010. Below is a timeline of this process:

 In 2005, the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think-tank and education watchdog, evaluated state standards in mathematics and language arts. The report gave Utah mathematics standards a D. In addition, international comparisons showed that students lagged behind their world-wide peers. Prominent mathematicians and higher education leaders asked for stronger standards. In a response, a USOE committee began rewriting the standards. Other states were also asked to make revisions.

 In May and June of 2007, the new mathematics standards were presented for review. Legislators and patrons from Alpine contacted an out-of-state mathematician Dr. James Milgrim and asked him to evaluate them. Dr. Milgrim, and a colleague named Dr. Wu did not like the standards and gave them a poor evaluation. In an August 2007 letter to the Utah State Board, the co-chairs of the Education Interim Committee of the Utah Legislature, Senator Margaret Dayton, Senator Howard Stephenson, and Representative Greg Hughes, asked the State Board to review Utah’s recently updated mathematics standards. Specifically, they wanted the standards to be “world-class,” more competitive, and similar to those of high-performing countries and states such as Massachusetts and Indiana. In September 2007, the Education Interim Committee invited Dr. Milgrim to testify regarding the new 2007 standards. After the interim meeting, the USOE, with the assistance of an advisory panel, began reviewing Utah’s mathematics standards, instruction and pre-service teacher training. (Ironically, in 2010 the Fordham Foundation gave the 2007 math standards an A- rating.)

 By January 2008, as a result of the Fordham Foundation report and visits to state legislatures by Dr. Milgrim, most states were engaged in a review of their mathematics standards. State education leaders began talking informally about the advantages of working together to upgrade mathematics and language arts standards. These discussions continued throughout 2008 and into 2009.

 In April 2009, Utah participated in the Common Core Standards meeting sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) and held in Chicago, Illinois. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the possibility of a common core, determine a potential process and timeline for the work, examine the tasks needed for state adoption, and come to consensus on whether the states should proceed. After the meeting, Superintendent Patti Harrington discussed the issue with the USOE administrative team, the State Board leadership, Governor Huntsman, and the Governor’s deputy, Christine Kearl. A decision was made to bring the matter to the State Board’s attention for their consent to sign a MOU committing Utah to the common core standard process. Adoption would be a state decision, and would only be sought after a review of the proposed core. It was also decided that the common core standard proposal would be presented to the Local Education Agencies (LEAs – local school boards and charter schools) for comment and also to the Legislature at an interim committee meeting.

 On May 1, 2009, Superintendent Harrington presented the Common Core Standards proposal to the State Board. Superintendent Harrington discussed the Common Core Standards proposal with the LEAs at a meeting held on May 14, 2009. The LEAs expressed support for moving forward with development of the Common Core Standards. After considerable discussion, the Board gave consent to sign the MOU. Governor Huntsman also signed the MOU.

 On June 17, 2009, the Common Core Standards proposal was discussed at the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee. The USOE began monitoring the Common Core Standards development process, with Brenda Hales, Diana Suddreth, David Smith, and Reed Spencer providing feedback to the writing team.

 The USOE held several meetings at locations throughout the state where Common Core Standards were discussed as a part of the agenda. At the end of July, the Race to the Top (RTTT) applications came out. It was decided to include the standards in the RTTT application. Throughout the fall and through December, the USOE continued monitoring the Common Core Standards development process and providing feedback. Note: Utah did not receive a RTTT grant, nor have we received federal funds to support the adoption of, or professional development for our Utah Core Standards.

 In January 2010, the State Board was briefed on progress toward developing the standards for mathematics and language arts. The State Board agreed that revisions of the two cores and new assessments should continue to be a part of the State Board’s Promises to Keep initiative and long-term improvement plans. Utah School Superintendents Association was also briefed. From January through April, the USOE continued monitoring the Common Core Standards development process and provided feedback to the developers. The State Board was kept informed of progress at each Board Meeting.

 On June 4, 2010, the State Board gave preliminary approval for Utah to move ahead in accepting the Common Core as a framework for setting the state’s own standards in both English language arts and mathematics. A presentation on the core was made to the Board of Regents, who endorsed the adoption of the Core. The Core was placed on the website for review.

 During the summer of 2010, the USOE held several meetings where the Common Core Standards were discussed as a part of the agenda. Meetings included conversations with superintendents, charter directors, curriculum directors, legislators, PTA members, higher education representatives, and business leaders. Legislators were invited to attend a meeting and luncheon to discuss the common core and other education matters.

 The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in a report entitled “The State of State Standards and the Common Core—in 2010,” gave Utah an A- for the 2007 math standards (the same standards that the Education Interim Committee and Dr. Milgrim didn’t like) and a C for Utah’s English Language Arts standards. The report ended with the comment, “Common Core provides admirable focus and explicitly requires standard methods and procedures, enhancements that would benefit Utah’s standards.” In a National Review Online, Chester E. Finn, Jr., a Fordham Institute leader, argued for the Common Core Standards.

 The core standards for mathematics and reading/English language arts were approved during the Board’s August 6, 2010 meeting. These standards were added to Utah’s other subject area standards and became a part of Utah’s Core Standards. The State Board adopted them based on the quality of the standards. They were not adopted due to federal pressure or federal money.

Since that time, the USOE has continued to hold many meetings to discuss the new standards. Presentations have been made to legislators, the Governor’s Commission on Education Excellence, LEA school board members, and local school district meetings.

Fordham Foundation on the RNC Common Core resolution

Short, pithy, and clear. This piece from a conservative think tank, echoes my own sentiments well.

Common Core furor

Over the past few months, a group of concerned parents has been touring the state and presenting information to folks about their concerns with Utah’s education standards in Math and English. The worry and concern has reached a fevered pitch among some as they have spread the alarm to others. Lest you think I’m a clueless dupe (as they have asserted), you should understand I have most of the same concerns they do – I just disagree with their conclusions.

For example, I think the federal government has no place in public education, and I detest their regulations and the strings attached to the funding states receive from the US Department of Education. Where we disagree is that those strings have been attached to the common core standards that Utah adopted shortly before I was elected to the board. The federal ties already exist through the title 1, federal nutrition, and Special Education programs. The core standards have no federal money attached in Utah. But this is only one example of the misguided sound and fury about Utah’s adoption of the common core standards. I’ll post additional information from time to time as often as I can.

Back to my blog

It has been a while, but I’m back to my blog. One of the reasons I stopped publishing information on this blog for such a long time is because as a member of the State Board of Education i found I was writing so much to respond to constituents I didn’t have the time to publish here. Sometimes it takes me a while, but it finally occurred to me that I should be posting some of those exchanges here, then just referring folks to the blog. Yeah, I know that sounds elementary – but sometimes I don’t stop to consider the best strategy – I just respond and “re-invent the wheel” each time, so to speak.

Background to the Common Core Standards

As members of the Utah State Board of Education we often field questions about the new Utah core standards adopted for Math and English last year. Many concerns come from educators hoping to ease their concerns about shifting to more rigorous standards. Other questions come from families wondering why the standards were adopted, why Utah chose to band together with other states, and what pitfalls lie ahead in the education of their children. Admittedly, it is a little scary for some. For me it is exciting because no longer will the graduation requirements in Utah be so far below the level of college and career readiness that should be expected at the end of high school.

One of the best responses I have seen to questions about the origin and intent of the Common Core State Standards (Utah’s new core standards) was penned recently by my friend Dixie Allen, who serves with me on the Utah State Board of Education. She is the vice-chair of our board. My intent in publishing her explanation is to hopefully help increase the understanding of the “why” behind the adoption of the new standards. In the future, I hope to write more specifically about the different aspects of the Common Core, but this should serve as a primer.

Dixie writes:
“…there are valid answers to your questions and these questions have been asked by many during the process of creation, adoption and afterward.

“First, the Common Core State Standards Imitative was a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Governor Herbert is a member of the first group and State Superintendent Larry Shumway is a member of the second.

“The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.

“The NGA Center and CCSSO received initial feedback on the draft standards from national organizations representing, but not limited to, teachers, post secondary educators (including community colleges), civil rights groups, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Following the initial round of feedback, the draft standards were opened for public comment, receiving nearly 10,000 responses. The Utah State Office of Education has a list of recommendations made and incorporated into the standards. The list is lengthy.

“The standards are informed by the highest, most effective models from states across the country and countries around the world, and provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards are believed appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.

“These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.

“These Standards are:
-aligned with college and work expectations;
-clear, understandable and consistent;
– including rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
-built upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
– informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
-are evidence- based

“The bottom line — these standards help prepare our students to live in the world we now have — not the world that you or I lived in and do much to prepare them to be success in the global world.”

Utah Teachers Union Supporters Go After Charter Schools

So, it appears that the union minded folks involved in public education aren’t content to listen to the myriad voices urging new reforms in every state in the nation, including Utah.  Instead, they want to go back and beat the same drum they always have: “lower class sizes and give us more money!”  In a Trib article today, the “Save our Schools” movement was described, including the viewing of a recently released Anti-charter school movie and the charter school bashing post mortem discussion that ensued.  This kind of movement clearly illustrates the vitriol many traditional public school teachers have for the charter movement.

That’s too bad.  Those of us with a broader perspective are supporters of ALL public education–including traditional public schools, public charter schools (notice the word “public” there), magnet schools, and alternative schools.  To me it is unthinkable that some public educators are not ashamed of their monopolistic hubris as they vilify others who sincerely and tirelessly work to improve public education.  True professionals should be able to accept criticism and join the effort to reform their system in constructive ways without rallying to discredit those who prefer a more varied approach to resolving the issues in public education.

Get ready, here comes the push back from the unions!  We’re sure to read more about their activities as they ramp up their efforts to celebrate the status quo.

The Case for Partisan State School Board Elections

Almost from the opening gavel of the 2011 legislative session, there has been an inordinate amount of hand wringing about public education and the role of the State Board of Education.  As a recently elected member of that board, and having prevailed in court when I was sued in an effort to prevent me from being seated after my election, I can speak firsthand about the controversial process of electing state board members, the perceived systemic problems, and the proposed remedies for this controversial and unique government body.  Recently, the State Board of Education voted to take a position in favor of legislation enabling non-partisan general elections.  Some have asked me why I spoke in opposition to that position, so this is my explanation.  The statements and opinions contained in this document represent my own opinions and should not be interpreted as the position of the Utah State Board of Education.


First, I will briefly overview the constitutional history of the State Board of Education, which is consistently the most misunderstood element of the debate.  Because the State School Board is a statewide elected body, some even consider the it a “fourth branch of government.” Few can explain where it actually fits in the three existing branches.  Here are the facts:

As Utah petitioned the US Congress for statehood, seven different state constitutions were drafted and proposed between 1849 and 1895, when statehood was finally granted.  The current Utah Constitution is a heavily amended version of the 1895 constitution.  Consistent with the US Constitution, drafters of the Utah constitution incorporated the principle of separation of powers between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches:

Article V, section 1. [Three departments of government]

The powers of the government of the State of Utah shall be divided into three distinct departments, the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial; and no person charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments, shall exercise any functions appertaining to either of the others, except in the cases herein expressly directed or permitted.

Because the framers of the Utah Constitution had such a strong distrust of the potential to abuse power in a centralized government, they also included a separation of powers within the executive branch as early as the original 1849 proposal. By the 1872 draft, the office of “Superintendent of Public Instruction” was included as one of five independent executives (along with the Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, and Auditor).  Subsequently, the Constitution was amended to vest “general control and supervision” of public education in an elected State Board of Education instead of the superintendent alone.

This is where the confusion usually begins.  Unlike the federal government, where the President of the United States is the undisputed chief of all executive departments and cabinet members over each agency are his subordinates, the Utah Constitution divides executive power between five elected officials (each independent) and 3 independent boards in the executive branch. The five executives are the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, and Auditor (as early as the 1872 draft there was also an independently elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, subsequently replaced with an elected Board of Education).  The three independent boards are the Board of Pardons, the State Tax Commission, and the State Board of Education.  Of those three boards, only the State Board of Education is duly elected.

So why is there so much drama surrounding public education in Utah?  Much of the angst comes from the general misunderstanding of the public surrounding the powers and duties of the State School Board, its members and their governing relationship with the Legislature, the Governor, and even with local school boards.  Add to this the public clamor each year for senators and house representatives to insert their lawmaking authority into public education issues (not to mention the insistence of teachers unions, PTAs, and a bevy of other education associations to have a place at the “stakeholders” table), and we get what we have now—a perennial power struggle for control of our schools.  But the constitution simply assigns that sacred charge to one independent body within the executive branch—the State Board of Education.

School Board, Legislature, or Governor as Chief of Education?

Which body is best suited to control and supervise public education in Utah?  Two senate resolutions this year seek to fundamentally alter the constitutionally prescribed governance of education by either eliminating the State Board of Education altogether, or by relegating it to a subordinate entity of the legislature.  Neither of these proposals effectively resolves the underlying frustrations at the heart of the matter.  Worse, these proposals undermine the worthy goals of Utah’s constitutional framers to maintain a healthy separation of powers both between government branches and also within the executive branch.  Since no evidence suggests that an elected governor or legislature would be inherently better at overseeing education than a school board elected by the same voters, I question the wisdom of such superlative constitutional reconstruction.  In America we don’t change the form of government because we dislike those who are elected.  We may improve the election process to insure those elected actually represent the electorate, but we don’t reconstruct the constitution because the political winds don’t blow our way.  Even our most conservative legislators shouldn’t be opposed to an education governing board, per se.  Governing boards, like the dual chambers of the legislature itself, are time tested best practices of governance, both in private corporations and in the public sector.

The Real Problem

There’s an elephant in the room, so to speak.  So let’s be honest about what is really making some people uncomfortable. The ongoing dissonance (both real and perceived) between our elected legislature and the elected State School Board has fostered distrust and raised questions about the School board truly representing the values of those who elect its members.  Consequently, proposals to poach the general control and oversight of education are debated annually when the legislature is in session.

Utah voters desire transparency and accountability.  In statewide elections, this means they want a consistent and principled process where they have an informed voice and where candidates are vetted, accessible, and accountable. Most voters believe they get that when they elect legislators, but that relationship does not exist with their elected State School Board members. With State School Board districts twice the size of state senate districts and the complex appointed nominating committee process to get on the ballot, it is no surprise there is such a disconnect with the electorate.  Case in point: even well informed voters who know their congressman, senator, or city council member are hard pressed to name their state school board member.  This is anything but transparent or accountable.

The Current Flawed Process

As it stands, a board of twelve gubernatorial appointees is responsible to recruit and nominate candidates.  Two recommended names from each district are placed on the public ballot by the Governor—effectively eliminating constituents from the nominating, vetting, and selection procedure altogether.  Almost universally, those familiar with the matter agree this hybrid process is flawed and should be changed to a more traditional election, but there is disagreement about which type of election to have—partisan or non-partisan.  Unfortunately, what we’re not hearing in the debate is the reason we have the complex process now.  It was introduced because the non-partisan approach used in years past was also ineffective!   Historically some districts couldn’t even field qualified candidates.  When it comes to voter disenfranchisement, general non-partisan elections suffered from many of the same fatal shortcomings as the current approach, and that is a significant reason they were discontinued.

Partisan Elections

I realize this is heresy in the education world—but hear me out.  Partisan elections, at least at the state level, are the best solution.  They are used for all other state elected offices, and for good reasons.  Because political parties adopt platforms, partisan State Board elections will overcome systemic distrust and insure the values of the voters are represented.  Most importantly, partisan elections will facilitate the level of influence, transparency, and accountability that the electorate craves.  To me it seems almost immoral to have such an influential and powerful body operating in the shadows of a detached constituency without the real public scrutiny that should influence its business.  Finally, partisan elections should truly empower the State Board of Education to do its job without interference from legislative overreaching into education management.

If we take an honest look at the issue, non-partisan elections in large voting districts actually inhibit representative participation and disadvantage the voters.  Without the ability for candidates to align with partisan platforms, voters are at a distinct disadvantage in assessing each candidate’s values and policy positions.  Even in this age of electronic communication, without the ability to raise funds through partisan sources (and trust me, donations don’t flow to non-partisan candidates the way they do to partisan candidates), candidates cannot possibly reach out with an effective campaign to inform district populations in excess of 150,000 people.  It just can’t be done properly.  I see no legitimate reason to deny voters the nominating, vetting, and retention tools provided through partisan caucuses, conventions, and primary elections.

Now, I realize the term “partisanship” has fallen on hard times.  When used in the media, in congress, and in almost any political dialogue, the word “partisan” is commonly invoked to conjure up notions of less than virtuous political maneuverings that somehow circumvent and tarnish free elections and fundamental American values.  In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.  Particularly in races where office holders represent massive populations (such as state and federal offices—including the state school board), partisan caucuses, conventions, and elections provide the only fair and reasonable method to represent the voice of the voters and to connect them with well vetted candidates in a free republic.  Remember: “Partisan” is not a dirty word!

Opposition to Partisan Elections

At first glance, the opponents of partisan state school board elections are reasonable and persuasive in their arguments, but with deeper analysis their position seems to be more rooted in platitudes than well-reasoned logic.  Generally, the main arguments use general terms to juxtapose the concept of partisan politics with the children we educate, naturally creating emotional discomfort.

For example, here is one comment I have heard:

“The best needs of our children are served when school boards remain aside from partisanship… The education of Utah’s children is best served by a non-partisan direct election of school boards by the people.”

Thankfully, however, we aren’t talking about campaigning in the classroom.  We are talking about informing adult voters who elect a statewide political body.  Local boards of education are the ones tasked with responsibility for individual schools, employees, and the children they serve.

Here is another example from those who oppose partisan elections:

Under such an [partisan] approach, candidates for the school board would be chosen in the convention system.   Education would become much more political, an approach which I believe the Constitution of the State of Utah discourages and which I believe would not be in the best interest of the children of the State.”

I don’t believe education will become any more political, or exactly what that phrase means.  But through the caucus system it certainly can become more transparent and accountable.  And the Utah Constitution is silent on which approach to use, aside from leaving it to the discretion of the legislature to decide how the election happens.


Remember, the statements and opinions contained in this document represent my own opinions and should not be interpreted as the position of the Utah State Board of Education.  Very few, if any, of my colleagues on that body concur and favor a partisan solution.  Regardless, I am convinced the best approach is a move to direct, partisan state board elections.  If you have any questions or desire to have additional information about my position, please contact me at your convenience.


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