UTPS announces lawsuit on State School Board elections

Some of you may be aware that my health has suddenly and significantly worsened and that the time I have left is now short.  This change has given my time to ponder what I value and has strengthened my desire to speak up for those values.

Yesterday, June 27, 2017, Utahns for Public Schools held a press conference in which they announced a lawsuit seeking to reaffirm the right of the public to non-partisan elections for the State School Board.

Utahns have historically favored non-partisan school board elections

Whether the State School Board should be elected on a partisan ballot is a not new issue.  In the last century, the partisan issue gained widespread public attention in a public discussion culminating in a 1950 vote.  In that election the publicoverwhelmingly voted for a non-partisan school board with power to appoint the State Superintendent.   (Official abstract of the 1950 election, published by the Board of State Canvassers, November 27, 1950)

Since that time, selection of the State School Board has remained non-partisan, although politicians have tried various machinations to alter the system:  most recently one central politburo-type board.   The latter was declared unconstitutional in 2014 by U.S. District Court.   (Benjamin Wood, “Judge rules State School Board selection process is unconstitutional,” Deseret News, September 7, 2014)

The non-partisan philosophy is enshrined in the Utah Constitution which reads:  “No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission, or attendance in the state’s education system.  (Utah State Constitution, Article X, Section 8)

Since the Utah State School Board oversees much of our education system and since service of Board members is compensated, the direct application of the constitutional provision seems clear.  To make the board partisan would, I believe, be contrary to the statement in the Constitution.

Public opinion polls have consistently shown that the public prefers non-partisan elections for State School Board members.  A poll conducted by Dan Jones and Associates asked, “How do you think members of the State Board of Education should be selected?” 56% replied favoring a non-partisan election.  Only 27 % favored partisan elections.   (Dan Jones & Associates poll, reported by Bob Bernick,  UtahPolicy.com, February 17, 2015)  

The Legislature has now passed legislation established partisan elections for the Board

Then in 2016, the Utah Legislature reversed the decades-old philosophy established by the public and supported by the Utah State Constitution.  Misleadingly, they called it a “compromise.”  The Legislature decided that State School Board elections would be non-partisan for one year (2016) but forever thereafter they would be partisan!!   One legislator (Republican Rep. Craig Hall) correctly identified the bill as a “partisan bill with a delayed implementation.”   The decision was made on the final day of the legislative session with limited debate.  (Whittney Evans, State Lawmakers Approve Partisan School Board Elections, KUER, March 10, 2016; Video/audio tape, Utah House of Representatives, March 10, 2016) 

Partisan school board elections are harmful to our education system

Why was the Constitution so clearly opposed to partisan politics in our education system and why am I opposed?  The students of our public schools come from every background, race, religion, and political party.  We have students who are Republican, Democrat, Independent, and agnostic to politics.  Every one of those students is of equal importance.  If our system and teachers start to promote partisanship in any direction, they err.   The school room should explore all ideas, forcing no conclusions, especially about political inclinations.

If on the other hand, our school boards become politically slanted, they may enact rules to support one particular philosophy. Teachers and administrators may be required to rigidly adhere to those mandates, and the free thought in the classroom will be channeled toward one way of thinking.   That is manifestly wrong.

As Karl Maeser, the first State superintendent of Schools in the LDS Church Educational System and sometimes identified as the “spiritual architect of BYU” explained:

“Politics is a curse in educational matters….If, unfortunately, a partisan feeling should prevail in the election of [the State Superintendent or State Board],…such interference would cast its blight upon the pupils also…Our schools would become political hotbeds, not only during election times, but all the year round…the filthy stream of party politics would pollute the sanctity of the school room[,]….reach the school and the children, and spoil the work….” (“Karl G. Maeser and BYU,” L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU History, 2016; Karl G. Maeser, School & Fireside, 1898, pp. 73-75)

In summary:

  1. Partisan school boards are bad for our students and consequently bad for our State and nation.
  2. The majority of the public opposes partisan school boards.
  3. The State Constitution opposes partisanship in our education system.
  4. The Legislature is forcing us into partisan school boards in direct conflict with their constituents’ wishes.
  5. We must turn to another avenue to keep our school boards free of partisan politics.

Now is the time for us to act.   In the just completed legislation session, a bill that would have made State School Board elections non-partisan was denied public discussion.  Legislative leaders shut the door, and refused to allow HB 151 out of rules committee.   It never saw the light of day.   (Benjamin Wood, Speaker: Lawmakers won’t act on nonpartisan ed-board bill, The Salt Lake Tribune, February 13, 2017)

The lawsuit is intended to change all that, asking the legal system to appropriately step in, support the public and Constitutional principles and require that elections for the State School Board be non-partisan.