The Utah State Board of Education (USBE) election is woefully underestimated. Too few know about the important work the board does, and even fewer know about the candidates running for the board.
This creates a vacuum allowing others to make decisions regarding these important policymakers – it’s a missed opportunity for Utah voters. It’s also the reason for the USBE candidate debates being hosted on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
Political insiders are fighting heated battles over the state board. Think of the partisan elections lawsuit, or this year’s legislative effort to give the board’s power to a governor-appointed superintendent.
The Utah State Board of Education is one of the few entities that is explicitly addressed in our state constitution. Per our highest legal document, the board has “general control and supervision” over public education in the state. But few know that the board creates state standards that guide your child’s classrooms, decides teacher licensing requirements, or interfaces with the federal government on compliance with major federal legislation.
It’s a red flag when only the political elite are playing in the game and deciding who has power over education policy in the state. Sadly, last year we learned that Utah has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation, ranking 39th among all states.
Which is why we need to make sure that every voter has not only has a seat at the table, but that they sit in it.
How do we make sure this happens? It starts with curiosity and learning prior to Election Day.
Voting – especially at the state and local level – is still one of the most important ways to participate in the policy process. It gives us a voice.
But if voting gives us a voice, then learning the issues ensures that our voices sound like us. We need to educate ourselves on the major issues going on right now and learn about our candidates.
We can do this by checking out the USBE website to learn about the board members’ responsibilities, reading the “education” section of the news, or following education threads on twitter (#uted, for example).
We can ask questions. As a nonprofit that looks at education policy, Sutherland receives education-related questions all the time from parents and concerned citizens: How are state standards created? Who sets graduation requirements? How can a parent learn about a charter school’s charter? What services are out there for students with special needs? Additionally, people can ask themselves: What issues have caused me grief based on either my own or my child’s experiences? How has this candidate demonstrated that they care about those issues? What makes them a good leader? Questions are exciting because they are the seeds of active participation in education policy.
When we’re brave enough to ask questions publicly – in op-eds or at debates – we also influence the public discourse, and our education policymaking candidates then have to respond publicly.
Importantly, we can seek out information about our candidates on campaign websites, candidate surveys, or public debates. The Utah Debate Coalition – made up of Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, Sutherland Institute, Hinckley Institute, KSL and United Way of Salt Lake – is hosting primary election debates for the state board of education candidates in districts 9 and 6 on June 5 and 6 respectively (find your district here). A subsequent series will take place prior to the general election. More information is available than ever before for these races, and it’s important to know about it.
Utahns, it’s time to take state and local races seriously. Having such a low voter turnout is an abysmal fact, but it’s possible to change that reality. We can start with a thorough look at the Utah State Board of Education races.
Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy director at Sutherland Institute.