Utah's educational system is in transition. Over the next decade, it needs the best leadership that can be mustered. Good ideas are just good ideas until people make them happen. The State Board of Education plays a crucial role in creating that direction.
The Utah Legislature is debating whether the present elected board should be maintained, or if an appointed board approved by voters would be a better alternative.A bill sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Brigham City, is expected to come up on the House floor for debate this week. It's a different approach from Bishop's attempt last year to eliminate the constitutional requirement for an elected board.
This year's legislation would create nominating committees in each of the nine districts from which state board members are elected.
The nominating committees, with a preponderance of membership from local school boards, would select three nominees, one of whom would be chosen by the governor to be the candidate for a yes/no retention election in the district. The bill also provides for write-in candidates.
Opponents have decried the potential "disenfranchisement of the people." That's an argument that would normally sway me, too. But as the facts stand, it loses some validity as an argument. State school board elections are notoriously poorly supported and few individuals know who repesents them on the state board.
To test this theory, I asked everyone I could find in the Deseret News offices over a couple of days to tell me who their state board representative was.
Only two - both of whom had been involved in education reporting - knew. That dilutes the claim that people would be irreparably hurt by being a step removed from direct election of school board members.
There are no checks on who becomes a candidate for the school board. There is no input at the grassroots level for school board candidates.
Individuals run for their own reasons - usually good, altruistic, service-oriented ones. Occasionally, a candidate has a personal ax to grind or a particular educational philosophy to push, and that can create dissension on the board.
Bishop argues that it's hard to convince quality people to run for the board. It's an expensive, thankless hassle that doesn't appeal to some individuals who could make significant contributions if appointed.
Bishop's plan would make subtle changes in education's power structure. If state board members were beholden to local board members for nomination to the board, it would change the present balance between the two levels of governance.
If it would decrease turf battles and bring state and local boards to a more cooperative relationship, that would be a benefit as well.
Utah's board has given lip service to that notion, but when push comes to shove, board members find it difficult to loosen long-established reins.
Opponents also claim the loss of an elected board would destroy checks and balances in the system.
In my opinion, a more equitable balance between state and local boards would create a new check, while the Legislature would retain the power it has historically had as a "super board."
Being able to appoint citizen members to the state board also would give the governor a stronger voice in education.
Gov. Norm Bangerter has proposed some new directions for Utah, many of them having to do with local control. Apart from the pulpit-pounding and arm-twisting power inherent in his office, he has no control over the implementation of his proposals.
Utah's state school board was appointed for many years. Only since the early 1950s has it been elected in the present manner. Many appointed boards, including public education's sister board, the Board of Regents, direct important government functions.
However school board members are selected, Utah has a stake in finding the most able leadership available to move education forward. Bishop's idea deserves at least a good hearing and serious study.