Should Utah's 15-member State Board of Education be directly elected by citizens?

Should it keep its current hybrid form — two candidates appointed to the ballot in each district by the governor, then one elected by citizens?

Or should the board just be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, taking citizens out of the loop completely?

Certain board members, like board chairman Kim Burningham, have angered some leading Republicans by taking stands against laws passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

And now the non-partisan Constitution Review Commission will study how, or if, the governance of the board should be changed, with a report to the 2008 Legislature.

It may turn into an emotional fight, complete with strong personalities holding strong opinions, especially about private school vouchers.

"I don't like the current hybrid system" of electing the 15 State School Board members, House Speaker Greg Curtis says. "We should just have direct elections" — doing away with the current system where a commission screens applicants, passing on names to the governor, who picks two for each final district race. Voters then choose between those two.

At an event last spring, Curtis, R-Sandy, ended up sitting next to Kevin Worthen, the review commission's chairman and dean of the University of Utah Law School. Said Curtis: "We struck up a conversation about governance" of the State Board of Education, whose duties are generally described in the Utah Constitution.

How board members are elected is not in the Constitution; it just says that board members will be elected, not appointed. But review commission members said they may want to recommend whether board members are appointed — as is the State Board of Regents, which oversees public colleges and universities.

And while Constitution Review Commission members said their study will not be directly related to vouchers, a highly politically charged issue to be decided by voters Nov. 6, the commission members and legislators alike can hardly avoid the issue.

Burningham, a former moderate GOP House member, clearly has become a political lightning rod regarding vouchers. The education board chairman is involved in the anti-voucher charge — and at times been a face and voice for a political issue committee that's spending millions of dollars aimed at defeating the new law Nov. 6.

At the same time, GOP legislative leadership, including Curtis, formed an opposing political issue committee that's fighting to keep vouchers.

"I believe strongly that vouchers are not best for our society and therefore, no, at least in my rational moments, I don't regret it at all," Burningham said of his involvement in Utahns for Public Schools. Yet, he says, "many people have told me I've just begun to see (animosity) that is going to get worse."

This summer, Burningham refused to allow state board employees to testify before a legislative committee, further angering GOP leaders.

Burningham welcomes the constitutional discussion, calling it appropriate. But he's pretty sure where it's coming from.

"I guess the concern that some legislators have is that they think we (on the State Board of Education) don't follow the law. Well, of course we follow the law. The major issue behind this ... is we didn't see the voucher issue the same way they (GOP legislators) did, but we were the ones that were following the law ... and of course, the Supreme Court agreed," Burningham said.

"That's made some people really angry, so they're thinking about changing (the Constitution) so there's more power (in education governance in the Legislature), so we'll be sure to follow the law. Well, we do follow the law, in my opinion," he said.

Curtis recognizes that some Republicans are angry at the state board because its members refused to implement the current voucher law this past spring, saying it was flawed. Ultimately, the Utah Supreme Court agreed the voucher question should go to voters Nov. 6.

Vouchers may have started this discussion, said Curtis. But he wants the Constitution Review Commission to make a "scholarly" study of public education governance in Utah "before the Legislature weighs in" in the 2008 session.

Said Curtis: "It may well be that we don't need any (constitutional) change. And I'm not necessarily advocating a change" — other than having direct elections of State School Board members, which the Legislature can do through statute without changing the Constitution.

The review commission is purely an advisory body. While legislators are encouraged to take proposed constitutional amendments to the commission, they don't have to. In fact, the Legislature, angry at what was seen as the Constitution Review Commission meddling in politics several years ago, passed a law saying the panel can't take positions on a proposed amendment after the Legislature has passed it — kind of a "shut-up-and-butt-out" attitude. And proposed constitutional amendments can be introduced, debated and passed in the Legislature without having been reviewed by the Constitution Review Commission.

While Curtis says he favors direct elections of State School Board members, he said he doesn't see the need to make those elections partisan — where a Republican would run against a Democrat in each of the 15 districts. But some leading GOP legislators are already saying they want partisan school board members — a change the Legislature can make without a constitutional amendment.

"The election could be like mayor of Salt Lake City. Each (board) district is about the same size as the city," said Curtis. Mayors are picked in a non-partisan manner, and school board members could be as well.

But other GOP lawmakers have already said they want to move to partisan mayoral elections, as well, especially in large Utah cities, claiming candidates are already running under party labels.

Curtis said he personally is not over-concerned about the State School Board governance status. "When we pass a clear law, the state board should follow it. But (it should) also be followed by everyone, including legislators," said Curtis.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; jtcook@desnews.com