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My view: Nobody's in charge of governing Utah education

By Sen. Howard Stephenson and Cody Jenkins

Published: Thursday, March 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Fifth-grade teacher Aubrey Vance enhances her classroom instruction with materials she has acquired through various charitable grants.

Lee Benson, Lee Benson

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The Soviet agricultural system has been relegated to the ash heap of history, but American public education continues with one five-year reform plan after another.

Shortly after the Reagan administration unveiled the "Nation at Risk" report, financial journalist and author Peter Brimelow wrote, "The public school system is the American version of Soviet agriculture, beyond help as currently organized because its incentive structure is all wrong. Symptoms include: … constant mismatching of supply and demand … prices administered without regard to incentives, so that all teachers must be paid on the same scales; and absence of internal checks and balances … "

While Brimelow's comparison was insightful, he failed to recognize why American public education has not utterly failed like Soviet agriculture did: the innate difference between a teacher's love for a child and a farmer's lack of affection for a turnip. Caring professionals are the reason government education has not utterly failed, in spite of the dysfunctional system in which they work.

It should be surprising that parents are satisfied that their children are educated in a government model of compulsory, tax-funded education factories we call public schools. Yet these same parents would riot if suddenly their housing, clothing, food and cars were produced by a similar government monopoly.

In 2002, Gov. Michael Leavitt created the Employers' Education Coalition (EEC) to take a broad look at the problems in both public and higher education. Leavitt named Fraser Bullock, who had recently helped turn around the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, to chair the EEC, which included business leaders, educators and parents. The EEC's report stated "the business community believes that management is the most important determinant of success in an enterprise. In the case of Public Education in Utah, the management process is anything but clear. There are 'too many hands on the steering wheel,' making it unclear who is in charge and who is responsible for what."

At statehood, the federal government wanted to ensure a Mormon governor could not wield church influence over public education. Therefore, while candidates run as the "education governor," Utah's Constitution leaves the head of the state's executive branch no authority over public education, which accounts for a whopping 52 percent of the state budget. What's more, governors have little authority or accountability for higher education, including state colleges and universities and Utah College of Applied Technology. As independent entities, public and higher education are forced to compete on more levels than just funding: public education complains that higher education doesn't adequately prepare teachers; higher education complains that public education doesn't effectively prepare students for college; and career and technical education provided by UCAT and others gets squeezed between public and higher education resulting in long waiting lists for students seeking 9-12 month technical certificates and licenses which employers sorely need. Meanwhile there are no waiting lists for four-year psychology and political science majors.

In its remedy the EEC stated "there must be a clarification of roles and responsibilities for the Utah State Legislature, the Utah Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the local school districts and a coherent management structure developed."

Sen. Stuart Reid's SB39, passed in the 2012 legislative session, solves the governance issue for Utah's System of Higher Education and UCAT. The measure gives the governor authority to approve the Board of Regents selection of Commissioner of Higher Education and UCAT's selection of its president.

In the 2013 session, Reid will sponsor a constitutional amendment to provide the general control and supervision of the public education system and higher education system to the governor. In order for the amendment to pass, it must receive two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and voter approval in the 2014 election. Governors will appoint the state school board and state superintendent in consultation with state school board and confirmation of the Senate. This authority will end the confusion of so many hands on the steering wheel, enabling an efficient, seamless education system to fuel greater economic growth.

All but one of the top 10 performing states in student achievement identified by Education Week has gubernatorial authority over public education. The governor either selects the state school board or state superintendent or both. This change could elevate the State Office of Education to a Utah Department of Education with the state superintendent as a member of the governor's cabinet.

It's time Utah establishes that, when it comes to public education, the buck stops with the governor.

Howard Stephenson is a Utah State senator and the chair of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Cody Jenkins is an intern from the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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