The Utah State Board of Education faces a crucial discussion: the hiring of a new Superintendent of Public Instruction to replace Martell Menlove, who announced his retirement last March. No decision has more impact on the future of education administration and policy in the state than this selection. Moreover, the choice is even more important now given the turmoil in the superintendent’s office.
In the past five months, the superintendent and deputy superintendent both have resigned their positions. Moreover, the office of superintendent has been a revolving door. Menlove served less than two years. His predecessor, Larry Shumway, was superintendent for only three years. The next superintendent should be someone who is committed to stay in the job longer than that.
One person the Board should not choose is Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart. There are many good reasons not to hire Lockhart. One is that she lacks managerial experience. The superintendent supervises 41 school districts across the state and approximately 600,000 students. Lockhart was a nurse, but has never managed an agency, office or business before.
Another reason is her lack of familiarity with education. She has never been a teacher, principal or education administrator. Legally, the superintendent need not possess that background. But how many businesses would hire as a chief executive officer someone who has no familiarity with the operations of a business? A superintendent should not be inexperienced about public education.
Still another reason is the problem of placing an ambitious politician in such a job. Lockhart has not hidden her interest in running for governor. She may not oppose Gary Herbert in 2016, as has long been predicted, but she is young enough (45) to try again in 2020 or even 2024. With that kind of ambition, the State Superintendent’s job becomes a stepping stone to another office. That isn’t the function of this position. Undoubtedly, Lockhart would take actions with an eye on the governor’s office, and state education policy would suffer. She might even come up with another simplistic and wrongheaded idea, like solving Utah’s education problems by giving a tablet to every child.
But perhaps the most potent reason to oppose Lockhart is her lukewarm support of public education. Lockhart, like so many of her Republican colleagues in the state legislature, offers rhetorical support for education, particularly while campaigning. But then she simply stops there.
Utah still has no education plan setting out the state’s strategy for the future. The governor has failed to offer that vision. Lockhart could have done so. She could have led the House to support significant increased funding for education and found the resources public education sorely needs. She could have worked with the Senate leadership to shepherd large-scale aid to education through the legislature. But she didn’t.
In interviewing for the position, Lockhart will probably claim she is an ardent supporter of public education, but her record says otherwise. Lockhart endorsed vouchers for private schools. She has been a strong supporter of Parents for Choice in Education, whose agenda is to take funds from the vast majority of students who attend public schools and give them to the small percentage who enroll in private schools. She has supported their bills 100 percent of the time. Her voting record with the Utah Education Association is more mixed. She also has opposed full-day kindergarten.
In a state where the majority of the legislature is divided between those who are satisfied to neglect public education’s acute needs and those who would like to kill off public education altogether, parents and teachers need a superintendent who will be a strong, not lukewarm, supporter of public education. The superintendent must be an advocate for bold change that includes lower class sizes, increased teacher pay, the retention of the best teachers (along with the ability to remove bad teachers), increased attention to special education needs and more teacher training for individualized instruction.
Lockhart says she hopes her application is judged on its merits. Hopefully, the State School Board members will agree. And on those grounds, they must look elsewhere for a new superintendent.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.