Saturday, January 29, 2011

SJR 1, SJR 9, HJR 15...Three different ways to give GOP leadership more control over education, but is the end game really partisan school boards?

Using the permanent, significant process of amending the state constitution to achieve temporary, political ends would normally be something conservative Republicans would oppose, but if involves giving them more control, especially over public education which they have made abundantly clear this session that they hate, their standards become more flexible.

Utah Republicans have proposed three different conflicting constitutional amendments this year. If they pass both the Utah Senate and the Utah House by a 2/3 majority vote, they will go on the ballot in 2012 for the public to vote on the changes. I don't believe Governor Herbert can veto proposals for constitutional amendments, but I am not 100% sure about that.

SJR 1 Joint Resolution on State Board of Education Authority, Senator Chris Buttars
This proposed constitutional amendment would give the state legislature control over curriculum in answer to supposed socialist teachings and law breaking by schools. Click on the link and then listen to the audio recording of the Jan. 26 committee hearing to hear the claims. This has already passed a vote in the Senate Education Committee.

SJR 9 Joint Resolution - Governance of Public and Higher Education, Senator Stuart Reid
This proposed constitutional amendment would give the governor "CEO" power over both K-12 and Higher Ed. for the entire state, including the ability to dissolve the State Board of Education or eliminate the position of state superintendent. Governor Herbert knew nothing about this proposed amendment until after the session started. The sponsor, Stuart Reid, does not know what effect this change would have on the large system of educational governance in both systems. He and Senator Stephenson speculated in committee that they could pass the amendment and then figure out a bunch of laws they will need to change afterward. Once again, this proposal has already passed a Senate Education Committee vote and the audio of the justification can be found at the above web page for the bill.

Governor Herbert opposes both of these proposals, saying the current system of governance by the State School Board "is actually working pretty well" and that the legislature would just become "a super school board of 104 personalities." (Two more stories on the proposed amendments and committee debate: The Trib and Channel 4.)

HJR 15 Joint Resolution Amending State Board of Education Provisions, Representative Chris Herrod
This proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate public elections of the State School Board. School board members and the state superintendent would instead be appointed by the governor "with the advice and consent of the Senate." This amendment was sent to the House Rules Committee Friday afternoon and has not yet been discussed. It will likely be sent to the House Education Committee next week. Keep an eye on the "Bill status/Votes" link on the bill's web page or subscribe to receive updates at the bottom of the page. You can listen to the committee debate live or after the fact.

If the legislature had an excellent plan, an optimal alternative to the current structure and authority of the State School Board that they thought was important enough to change the constitution rather than just tweak a law, there would have been one proposed amendment with a compelling reason for its existence. Instead, three conflicting amendments have been thrown against the wall to see what sticks.

What is the common thread between the proposed amendments? These three amendments propose three different ways to put politicians directly in charge of education. I think the desire to gain control over the check and balance of an independently elected State School Board is plain. The board strenuously opposed private school vouchers in 2007 and has often opposed other pet GOP leadership proposals since. Sen. Hillyard asked the cogent question to Sen. Reid whether he would be proposing the amendment if the governor were a Democrat. Reid replied "Absolutely," but do you believe that?

I have commented before that the public trusts educators much, much more than politicians. This may not be true of the Eagle Forum echo chamber that sees public education as a socialist plot to "bring down America," but they don't represent close to the majority of public opinion, even in Utah.

So I'm not completely surprised legislators would attempt any of these power shifts, but I don't see any of them as likely to pass a public vote. Why the glut of huge changes now? I don't know how coordinated these amendment proposals may have been, but there is at least a plan to take advantage of the fear they are generating. On Red Meat Radio today, State Superintendent Shumway was interviewed again and asked about the proposals, including the possibility of the State Board or Superintendent being eliminated. At the end of the discussion, Senator Stephenson pushed Shumway to state whether he would prefer the State School Board being eliminated or elected in a partisan election with Republican and Democrat candidates voted on in political conventions. Shumway was badgered into saying he thought both were bad ideas, but he would prefer a partisan election to complete elimination of the State School Board.

Was this the dry run for the line of reasoning that will be used in committee? Partisan school board elections will be the "good cop" after the "bad cop" threats of complete overhauls of the education system via constitutional amendment?

Running state and/or local school board elections through party conventions will basically accomplish the same goals of the three amendments. Vouchers failed statewide, even among Republicans, but state and county Republican delegates as a group share many more of the antagonistic views toward public education held by Sens. Stephenson, Buttars, Dayton, etc. The highly conservative candidates vetted in the Republican conventions would automatically win 90%+ of their general races simply by virtue of the R before their name. Within two election cycles, the State Board of Education would be taken over by candidates who do not represent the common views of Utah citizens. The legislature could run extreme ideas such as vouchers, converting traditional public schools to charter schools, and drastic budget cuts, and be able to tell people "the State School Board supports our proposal."

I've already shared my opinion about partisan school board elections and some excellent links to arguments for and against. (Further clear discussion at Utah Moms Care.) If the threat of a partisan school board election bill amendment doesn't happen as detailed in the post, Senator Stephenson has a bill of his own in waiting titled "Partisan School Board Elections."

Utahns overwhelmingly oppose partisan state and local school board elections by 66% and 72% counts. The legislative leadership has demonstrated they don't care about that, vouchers being only the most obvious example of knowingly pushing their ideology over the will of their constituents, and they know they won't suffer any repercussions at the ballot box after emerging largely unscathed from their voucher defeat.

I am worried. Really worried. The legislature has spent the first week of the session on an all out offensive against public education and they have more in mind than just insults. Follow these important education bills and contact your legislators. Encourage other constituents to contact them with a voice of reason about public ed. as well. Public education is vulnerable and strained to the breaking point already. Don't let it be turned into a political football based on rigid ideology rather than concern for kids.


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