Genius Panel: Strong Feelings About Public Education Governance

blue 01This week’s question: Public education governance has emerged as an important issue. Who should be directly responsible and accountable for public education? Are governance changes needed?

Steve Handy, state representative and former Layton City Council member. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want excellent educational outcomes. Everywhere you turn, there’s this think tank, that commission, this legislative “silver bullet,” that special interest group, and this education initiative. It’s all mostly good and the intentions are pure but they don’t speak with one voice, and that’s a problem.

Who really is in charge?

As I’ve thought about and worked on this with others for several years, it’s clear to me that partisan state or local school boards are not the answer. The bill passed in 2016 moving to partisan races for the state school board in 2018 gives me pause even though I voted for it.  

Regarding the State School Board, we really need to follow the Board of Regents model; members should all be appointed by the governor. With a bully pulpit, the governor can tap the best and brightest, without a political agenda, to bring the benefit of their wisdom and experience to the governance of public education in Utah. Think of the breadth of experience and wisdom of individuals who would serve at the governor’s request but would never run for office.

This is only the first step and although I’m not clear on the details, I believe that the governor should have greater oversight over public education.

It’s clear to me that accountability in the current model is fuzzy and diluted. Let’s elevate and centralize accountability for education governance and performance in the governor’s office and at the very minimum let our governor appoint members of the State School Board.

Peter Corroon, current state Democratic Party chair, former SL County mayor and gubernatorial candidate. The Governor should be responsible for Public Education.  Our education system is a rudderless boat with no clear leader.  The state Legislature has become the defacto leader of our education system with each legislator having a different idea of how it should be run. It is a disaster.  They give little respect to educators and minimal pay to teachers.  They want competition through the Charter School system.  I support our charter schools, but the governor and legislature still need to fund the system they already have in place.  Otherwise, we will continue to see test scores decline, and we will see more teachers leaving the system and a continued shortage of teachers.

While the governor should oversee the education system, the School Board should continue to serve as its policy arm. The School Board should be chosen in non-partisan elections. 

Pat Jones, current Women’s Leadership Institute CEO and former state senator. Yes, public education governance needs to be addressed.  Right now, no entity is guiding the ship and that vacuum of leadership exacerbates the problem of 104 legislators trying to “fix” education.

I believe the governance should institute a similar governance format as that of the Board of Regents.  That way, the responsibility would fall where it rightfully should be – in the lap of the chief executive of our state.

Todd Weiler, state senator, and former state GOP vice chair. Last October, Utah’s population surged passed the 3 million mark.  That means that each of the 15 members of the state school board represents over 200,000.  By contrast, each of the 29 members of the Utah Senate represents just over half as many people. 

We used to elect our judges in Utah, but that changed in the early 1970s.  Now we appoint them. Applicants are screened by bipartisan committee, and five to seven names are forwarded to the Governor.  One of them is appointed by the Governor, subject or confirmation by the state Senate. 

This process has served our state well, and could have been easily replicated by the State School Board. This would have been my first choice. But that option proved to be politically unpalatable in the current environment.  

Instead, the board members will be elected.  It took the Legislature almost a decade to reach a consensus to begin partisan elections in 2018.  

The cost to run an effective state Senate race in Utah can easily exceed $40,000.  You could theoretically double that amount for a school board race.  In 2014, a candidate for the State school board spent over $70,000 of his own money — and lost!  

All campaigns for public office cost money.  Right now, it is exponentially more difficult for candidates to raise money for a School Board race than one for the Legislature.  That may change in 2018. 

Partisan elections have obvious advantages and disadvantages. By making these races partisan, delegates from both major parties will have an opportunity to vet the candidates. Only time will reveal whether that is a positive development.  

Ted Wilson, former Salt Lake City mayor, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and candidate for sundry offices. We’ve managed to keep education reasonably non-partisan in Utah over the years. Yes, there was the Republican failed attempt to privatize education with school vouchers and yes, the Democratic-UEA has not always been willing to work with the Republicans very closely. But to have a partisan-elected school governance at any level of Utah leadership is akin to a banana republic style of leadership. It would lead to in-fighting, out-fighting, and arcane attempts to rob the schools even more of their base funding. That’s how they run things in Panama. We need a revival of John Dewey: “Education is for all the children of all the people.”

Richard Kendell, former Davis school superintendent, Higher Education commissioner, governor’s education advisor and currently an education consultant. The issue of public school governance, especially at the state level, has dogged policymakers for many years.  Non-partisan elections have been the most prevalent method of selecting board members, but legislative changes called for the screening of candidates with the idea of selecting two very qualified candidates for each school board seat.  

The law was not well crafted, and the system produced an interesting mix of candidates who had a difficult time launching a well-organized plan to focus public education efforts and funding.  At times, it appeared to some observers that the internal politics of the State School Board blocked the possibility of real progress. The board had a hard time attracting and retaining a superintendent, hiring four different superintendents in five years.  Moreover, many qualified staff members in the USOE gave up in exasperation or were forced out by a coalition of some, but not all, board members.  

Board members seemed to be divided into ideological camps around such topics as the Utah Core Standards, assessment systems, working or not working with the Feds, science education or some variation thereof, the value of homeschooling, sex education, textbook selection, charter school advancements/protections and teacher licensure.

All in all, the State Board provided one of the more lively forms of entertainment in town. (And at no cost nor admission fee except to the taxpayer). The situation was not made better by the Utah Legislature proposing more than a hundred reforms, rules, and regulations each legislative session, nor the governor who caved in on the issues of core standards and more rigorous assessments.  Apparently, he forgot that these ideas came largely from governors, like himself, not the Feds.  Andrew Lloyd Weber could probably put this whole situation to music and have a Broadway hit, although I don’t know if it would be a comedy, musical, or tragedy. Maybe Stephen Sondheim would be a better choice of playwright.

On the other hand, the Utah State Board of Regents has been an effective governance model for nearly 50 years. The Regents are appointed by the Governor and approved by the Utah State Senate. The Regents have had challenges and difficult issues, but the membership of exemplary citizens serving as board members has allowed for the development of good policies and practices over the years.  The Regents system was initiated in 1969, and some of the early members were Don Holbrook, Roy Simmons, and Richard L. Evans. The list of Regents is long and impressive.

This is not to say that there are not good people on the State Board. Indeed there are, but the entanglement of personal agendas, political ambitions, the disdain of professional educators, the frequency of internecine intrigue on all sorts of matters, and the propensity of the Board to micro-manage the USOE staff has created a hydra-headed governance model that cannot be cauterized.  Hercules did a good job of this in his day, but he is not available for service.

Given the challenges facing public education and the critical role education will play in the lives of individuals, families, businesses, and critical social institutions, I believe that the Legislature should establish the means to appoint members of the Utah State Board of Education following the pattern used for the State Board of Regents.  There is no magic or silver bullet in this recommendation.  It is simply a system that works in Utah. We need the best and brightest to lead us to a better future. The current superintendent is superb and a start in the right direction.  Let’s now revise the selection process for the Utah State Board of Education. Time is of the essence.    

Mark Bouchard, senior managing director, Southwest Region, CBRE Inc., and past chair of Prosperity 2020, an education reform/funding group. The answer is not straight forward.

Oversight – Governance of Public Funds. The legislature certainly should certainly play a key role but more specifically from a goal setting, funding and education plan oversight perspective.

Macro – Strategy/Execution. The State Office of Education should be responsible for statewide planning, policy making and executing plan strategy subject to funding for those programs recommended as part of a state-wide plan. Statewide planning should be recommended by the State Office of Education and its leadership, then presented to the State Board of Education for ratification, discussion and approval.

Micro – Strategy/Execution. Local school boards should govern the differentiation between meeting the needs of the larger statewide plan and the unique needs of the District they represent.

I also believe that similar to the Board of Regents, the State Board of Education should be appointed by the Governor and confirmed through a legislative process. In implementing this approach, you can combine a broad group of leaders with diverse backgrounds in education, planning and executive oversight.

The existing system is dysfunctional at every level, despite the good intentions of those involved. There’s simply not adequate check & balance and a clear delineation of duties that differentiate roles and responsibilities.

Laynee Jones, program director, Mountain Accord, and senior project manager for many engineering projects. As someone who does not have kids and does not currently deal directly with schools, I offer this perspective –

In today’s toxic political environment we need less partisan bickering, not more.  From my experience, we can get more done if we check our party badge at the door and focus on a solution to our pressings needs.  This hold true for our kids – who are not born as Democrats or Republicans but as curious individuals with a desire to learn. We owe it to them to give them the right learning environment, developed to unleash their unique potential, not to further political ideologies.  

Boyd Matheson, president, Sutherland Institute, former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee. As a matter of principle, accountability in education should be to the students, parents and taxpayers. Even in governance, responsibility and accountability for public education should reflect the truths that parents know best how to raise and educate their children, and that public officials have a responsibility to taxpayers to be accountable for how they spend the latter’s hard-earned income. 

The Utah Constitution gives the Board of Education “general control and supervision” of public schools. Utah’s Supreme Court has further ruled that the board’s power only operates “in accordance with the laws made by the [Utah] legislature.” Utah law makes it clear that parents and guardians have the primary responsibility for the education of their children, and that education institutions should “respect, protect, and further the interests of parents and guardians in their children’s public education.”

This points to the conclusion that the most important change needed in education governance is a cultural shift toward validating parents’ vital role.

In practice, this would mean protecting the decision-making power of parents. Instead of top-down government entities determining specific statewide solutions for all students, their policies could incentivize innovations, offer space for new options, and provide parents with a mechanism to make informed, differentiated educational decisions for the unique needs of their children.