SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert may ask lawmakers to go along with his newly announced opposition to mandatory high school SAGE testing at this month's special session of the Utah Legislature.
If the State Board of Education agrees later this week to a request from the governor to endorse his position on the testing, he'll consider adding the issue to the May 18 special session agenda, his spokesman, Jon Cox, said Monday.
It's the governor who controls a special session, and Herbert announced last month he was bringing lawmakers back to restore nearly $4.8 million in education funds he had vetoed and consider a resolution opposing a new national monument in Utah.
He has until late afternoon on May 16 to add items to that agenda.
Herbert's opponent in the June 28 GOP primary, Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson, said the governor's change of heart and sudden push for legislative action on the testing issue is all about the upcoming election.
"I think this is a purely political move on his part. He will do and say anything for a third term in office," Johnson told members of the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday.
Johnson has made his opposition to the controversial Common Core State Standards in Utah, which set academic benchmarks in math and English for students using the test, a key part of his campaign.
He said Monday that SAGE is "a piece" of his concern with education standards coming from state rather than local officials and called the governor's proposal to end the test in high school "a baby step."
Herbert had been defending Common Core "up, down and sideways," including at the Utah County GOP convention in mid-April, Johnson said, where delegates let him know how they felt about the issue.
"At the Utah County convention, I heard Gov. Herbert stand up and say, 'Common Core is not the boogeyman that people in this room think it is.' He was roundly booed," Johnson said.
The governor's stance changed at the state Republican Party convention in late April, where he told delegates he was listening to their concerns about Common Core and pledged parents would have a bigger voice in their children's education.
Herbert finished behind Johnson in the delegate vote at the convention, 45 percent to 55 percent. The race between Herbert, who first took office in 2009, and Johnson now goes to a statewide primary for Republican voters.
Last week, the governor announced he wanted the use of Common Core standards and high school SAGE testing eliminated because the continuing controversy was hurting Utah students.
"He's tried to address this issue multiple times. The challenge is the controversy continues. The fact is, it's only gotten worse over time," Cox said.
While Common Core must be addressed by the State School Board, it's up to lawmakers to take action on SAGE, the student assessment of growth and excellence, the governor's spokesman said.
The standards have undergone reviews by the Utah Attorney General's Office and others at the governor's request to determine if the state ceded control to the federal government through their adoption. The answer has always been no.
The governor's campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, said Herbert has worked throughout his time in office to protect local control of education.
"His only motive is to help our students succeed," Carpenter said. "He continues to work on these issues with the State Board of Education and others whether there is a campaign or not."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said there's no shortage of legislative support for doing away with SAGE testing, but he called for more time for both lawmakers and the public to review any recommendation.
"There are many legislators who would love to jump on that bandwagon," Niederhauser said. "My concern is that we do this in a deliberative fashion. This could take three or four (months of) interim meetings to work through."
The Senate leader stopped short of suggesting politics are behind the timing of the governor considering adding the issue to the special session being held as part of the May interim meeting day.
"I don't know what all the motives are. There seems to be some politics there, but I haven't had that discussion," Niederhauser said. "Somebody could say it's obvious and maybe it is obvious. That's why I think it's good for us to slow it down."
Greg Hartley, chief of staff to House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said there needs to be more discussion to determine "whether we could support it for a May special session or if it's something that needs a longer study process."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, questioned how quickly the issue was moving given its potential impact on students throughout the state.
"What's unclear is why this timing and what extent this decision is grounded in sound public policy as opposed to political maneuvering in the face of what could be a competitive primary," he said. "This is a big decision."
But education officials say the timing may be right to make changes. The State School Board is scheduled to discuss the possibility of eliminating SAGE for high schools during its monthly meeting Thursday and Friday.
Spencer Stokes, a State School Board member, said he believes the measure will be approved.
"I don't think the State School Board is looking at it as political because it's being sent to us by the governor," Stokes said. He said Herbert is expected to attend the Friday meeting.
It’s not the first time education leaders have considered looking for a different measure for high school performance, according to board Chairman David Crandall. Students start taking the tests in third grade, in science, English and math.
For elementary students, SAGE is tailored to each grade level. But high school students are tested based on course subject, such as chemistry, biology, or one of Utah’s three integrated secondary math courses. That difference has raised questions of whether high schools need an assessment system separate from elementary schools.
“That’s something that we’ve been talking about for a while, dating back at least a year,” Crandall said.
Discontinuing SAGE for high schools, however, would have a number of implications for other state education programs, such as school grades and academic turnaround initiatives for the lowest-performing 3 percent of schools. Education leaders will be discussing those and other consequences as they decide whether to back Herbert’s proposal, Crandall said.
Despite the broad implications of the change, waiting until the next general session to make a decision wouldn’t be without its own set of challenges, he said. Some high schools operate on a trimester schedule, where SAGE is administered at the conclusion of some courses in December.
So next week’s special session or the weeks that follow may be a more strategic time to adopt a new policy, which would likely take effect next year, he said.
“That’s a cleaner time to make that change, sometime during the summer or early fall,” he said. “It is something that can get done in one day. It just depends on how much groundwork is done beforehand.”