Legislation putting the state superintendent's job in the hands of the governor and subjecting state school board elections to party politics is making a comeback.
The Education Interim Committee today will continue legislative talks, begun last year, on whether these are good ideas. Committee co-chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, says they will improve the school executive's position as a Cabinet appointment and the profile of school board elections.
"Ninety-five percent of the population could not name their state school board member if their life depended on it. That's a problem," he said. "Why even have an election? Why not just have them appointed by the Wizard of Oz?"
But the State Board of Education last year opposed the idea of injecting party politics into the current nonpartisan governance of public schools, which the Utah PTA fears could influence the management of school trust lands, which have about $1 billion in the bank.
"(Lawmakers) want the extreme elements of party politics to control the election," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education. "The board has said (they) want people committed to education as their prime directive."
The proposals do not yet have sponsors.
Currently, a nominating committee recommends state school board candidates to the governor, who chooses two if so many seek the office for the ballot.
The state superintendent of public instruction currently, Patti Harrington, who has a good working relationship with both the school board and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is appointed by the state school board.
Utah's education system is independent by Constitution. Other states have it an arm of the executive branch, which Stephenson thinks is better.
"Most governors run with promises of being the education governor and once they're elected, they ... can use the bully pulpit, but they have no line authority, and the superintendent of schools is not even part of the governor's cabinet," Stephenson said.
A proposal to give the governor power to appoint the state superintendent would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate, plus a vote of the people to change the Utah Constitution.
Another proposal to subject the school board to party politics, Stephenson believes, would field more candidates, who would be screened by party conventions. It also would call for 29 board members, up from the current 15, with district boundaries the same as the Utah Senate's.
"This will elevate the visibility of the office by making it a partisan election and at the same time cut the number of constituents in half so they would actually be known and be able to serve their constituents more responsively," Stephenson said. -
Two similar bills failed last year. Since, the chairman of the school board has found himself pushing against legislative leaders in his opposition to private school tuition vouchers, which voters overturned in last week's election. Huntsman supports vouchers but attempted to stay out of the question when it came before voters.
School choice, including vouchers, is part of the Republican Party platform. Requiring state school board candidates to rise from party conventions in overwhelmingly Republican Utah could yield a more conservative school board. And with a Republican governor appointing a state superintendent who would likely work for a Republican-majority board, judging from Utah's voting history, there might not be much disagreement over party basics.
Then again, the Utah House is more than two-thirds Republican, yet the voucher question repeatedly has found trouble there among moderates, and this year barely passed.
But Stephenson says the proposals before his committee have nothing to do with vouchers.
"This is continuing our discussion of a year ago. Was that in response to vouchers? No," Stephenson said. "We're discussing the best way of getting qualified candidates and better representation to constituencies ... (and) make sure we have more than one person file for an office."
The Utah PTA says more is at stake. President Marilyn Simister fears the office of the superintendent or state school board member could turn into political favors or "subject to so much party politics maybe people aren't as effective as they would be if they were independent."
She particularly worries about School and Institutional Trust Lands, and the schools' nearly $1 billion nest egg the PTA wants prudently invested and managed."There's a lot of money there, and if there's political pressure, partisan pressure as well, then whoever is controlling that might become responsible to that rather than responsible to the beneficiaries, which are the schoolchildren," Simister said. "Schools shouldn't be a partisan issue; everybody should be working together no matter what party they are."