Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Public Education and Black Helicopters

No doubt seeing political trouble ahead, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday morning a new special commission to look into Utah public education standards, and requested an attorney general opinion to “make sure” that Utahns are in fact in control of education standards, and not the feared Big Brother federal government.


If it’s not a case of a politician asking for a study to get the wackos off his back, it’s close to it.

But who can blame Herbert?

The “black-helicopter” folks on the Utah Republican Party’s right wing have been blasting Common Core for several years.

The issue first hit Herbert on the side of the head just before the 2012 state GOP convention.

He eliminated all right-wing challengers then, but he found himself defending Common Core all the same to some upset delegates.

But Herbert has already said he plans to run for re-election in 2016, and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, businessman Jonathon Johnson, and other Republicans are looking to get in the race and challenge him.

So it’s best not to let the Common Core sore fester.

As UtahPolicy explained Wednesday, GOP House and Senate leaders are looking at one possible way to escape some of the political heat.

Herbert originally called his education press conference for Tuesday morning – to get ahead of legislative leaders.

But he postponed that event to Thursday morning after news broke about the arrests and charges against former attorneys general John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff.

Herbert will do several things over the next few months in an effort to “get us talking together instead of talking past each other”:

— Ask AG Sean Reyes to review all state and federal law concerning the state setting of educational standards, with an eye to ensuring that Utah – and Utah alone – has the power to do so.

— Set up a special educational standard review commission, headed by former higher education commissioner Rich Kendell, that will take testimony from all interested citizens, teacher associations, school board members and so on.

The group may recommend that some of the Common Core standards be kept, changed or removed.

Common Core — ironically a National Governors Association initiative, and Herbert will head the NGA next year – are a set of standards Utah adopted.

But for two years arch-conservative groups have been complaining about CC and how its tests are being implemented in public and charter schools.

Herbert asks anyone and everyone to give “specific” recommendations on Common Core and any other educational standard opinions to this group.

And he’s set up a web site: where those suggestions can be made. The site will be open through August, Herbert said.

— The governor also wants to make sure that all student data being electronically collected are safe and secure, and are not used inappropriately.

Again, with NSA data-mining operations in the news lately, Herbert is politically sensitive to the black-helicopter folks’ concerns that their children’s or grandchildren’s school data are not being looked at by federal bosses.

Herbert did NOT specifically back away from Common Core on Thursday.

But he clearly opened the door for that move after he gets his new study committee’s recommendations later this year.

Herbert bringing AG Reyes into issue is a cagey political move. Reyes is seen as a Tea Party/right winger by many on Capitol Hill.

Since it’s already pretty clear that Utah education officials are following state laws – which say the feds have no control over local public education – Reyes’ expected legal benediction will allow Herbert, in a month or so, to hold up Reyes’ legal opinion before TV cameras, saying Utahns don’t need to worry.

And the right-wingers should believe one of their own (Reyes that is, not Herbert).

Any state or local education official who is not following state law, and is doing the fed’s bidding, can then be flayed in the public square.

More than a few GOP lawmakers are taking a big collective sigh today – for they see Herbert’s move as another sign that with a bit more pressure they can push him over the CC rejection cliff.

“We’re not going to please the (political) extremes on either side,” Herbert said in answer to a journalist’s question.

“The 85 percent (of) reasonable people” in the middle “will feel good about the outcome” of his overall review of educational standards in Utah, the governor said.

The main goal of Reyes’ legal review will be to prove that Common Core or other fears that the feds are controlling testing, textbook buying, social engineering of children, or any other issue simply are not true.

Those are my words, not Herbert’s. But it’s clear to me that’s what the governor is getting at.

Now, as Herbert said, even with the Kendell report and Reyes’ legal opinion, there will be some folks and groups (yes, you, Eagle Forum) who won’t buy the explanations.

Only an outright rejection of all things Common Core will suffice.

The fears of Herbert and GOP legislative leaders, however, is that the CC disease is spreading, reaching out to parents and grandparents who normally don’t fly in the “black helicopters,” but may be starting to hear them circling over their homes and public schools.