Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Lockhart’s Switcheroo

House Speaker Becky Lockhart shocked more than a few folks when she announced several days ago that she was applying to become Utah’s next superintendent of public schools.

Surprises on two fronts:

— First, the Provo Republican, who is retiring from the House this year, was expected to challenge GOP Gary Herbert for the 2016 Republican gubernatorial nomination.

— Second, Lockhart has no hands-on education experience. She has never been a certified school teacher, never a school administrator, never a local or state school board elected member.

Yes, like millions of Utahns she has had children in public schools.

And unlike most Utahns, Lockhart has helped put together billion-dollar state public education budgets.

She does have a college degree – in nursing.

But she doesn’t have an advanced degree in education or public administration.

State law says only that the 15-member, elected State School Board must hire a superintendent on the “basis of outstanding professional qualifications.”

But it doesn’t say what the profession must be.

If that profession is politician, lawmaker, or leader, Lockhart fits the bill.

She’s been by all accounts a fine speaker over the last three-and-a-half years. She gets praise not only from her massive 61-member GOP House caucus, but from the minority Democrats, as well.

“Outstanding professional qualifications” is a phrase that can mean different things to different people, says State Board member Kim Burningham, a former GOP House member and public school teacher.

Burningham said he can’t discuss any individual candidate putting his or her name before the board, but would talk to me about the how the board has made such selections in the past and the history of board superintendents.

Some may say outstanding professional qualifications means being a good leader and administrator, said Burningham.

But he would add, that in the case of the top administrator of Utah’s public school system, “they should have a superb understanding of education as well.”

Burningham has been on the board 16 years, has worked with four superintendents and participated in the selection of the last three.

In all those cases, he said, the superintendents had advance degrees in education and a great deal of experience in public education administration.

You can see the law-mandated duties of the superintendent here; it’s quite a list.

So it sounds like Burningham may not be an “aye” vote for Lockhart.

But one of the speaker’s great talents is vote counting.

Four years ago she ran against an entrenched House speaker, and beat him by one vote.

And it’s more than likely that Lockhart, or her advocates, have tested the waters with State Board members who may be amenable to her candidacy.

Votes probably have not been promised – since all the candidates have yet to file for the appointment.

But I don’t see Lockhart embarking on this unusual effort if she knew she didn’t have much of a chance.

For some years conservatives throughout Utah have been displeased with many of the decisions of, and the administration of, the Utah State Board of Education and Utah’s public schools.

Many conservatives see the board, and especially the Office of Education staff, as being resistant to change, stuck in an educational bureaucracy that demands more and more taxpayer money.

The board’s adoption of the Common Core multi-state educational standards hasn’t helped its standing in the conservative community.

It’s the old argument – throwing money at a bureaucracy that isn’t changing means you get the same results.

So groups like Parents For Choice in Education (the old pro-voucher organization) started working mostly behind the scenes with conservative GOP lawmakers.

First, they remodeled the admittedly-odd system whereby State Board candidates were vetted by several committees. They got some of their folks on the State Board review committees, and then narrowed down the selection committees to just one.

Several names in each board district up for election are sent to the governor, who picks two to be on the general election ballot.

Over the last several election cycles, incumbent State Board members who didn’t get along with the conservatives didn’t make it through the selection process.

So even though they were incumbents voted in by Utah citizens, they were off the board without a public vote.

In recent Legislatures there have been attempts to make the State Board elections partisan – and so candidates would run through the Republican and Democratic parties and would be listed under those party banners on the general election ballot.

That, clearly, would put a majority of Republicans on the State Board – for Utah is a heavily GOP state.

And if that were the case today, it would only make sense that the board would pick a known Republican to be the state school superintendent.

Now, I’m told that the final vote by the board on the new superintendent will be in an open meeting, and vote will be public as well – so members will have to raise their hand and say “aye” or “nay” when the final count is made.

For the past several superintendent selections, said Burningham, the three or four finalists who are interviewed (in private) by the board have had their names made public before the board vote.

But Burningham said he is not so sure that the current board “has resolved that question.”

In other words, the finalists’ names could be kept private and there would be an up or down vote in public on one name, without knowing who else had applied and made the finalists’ cut.

That could mean the public doesn’t know all the finalists, nor would know their qualifications.

If Lockhart were the only name voted on in the public meeting (she would likely pass if that were the case), then we wouldn’t know if other candidates were automobile mechanics or education PhDs who’ve run large education administrations.

(There is a long history, and controversies, of such closed-door nominations both in public school and state university presidential selections – with the closed door advocates saying you won’t get the best candidates putting their names forward if their current bosses find out they are looking to jump ship and come to Utah.)

So, the upcoming State School Board superintendent selection will be very interesting, no matter the outcome.

Will board members want to shake up the current public school bureaucracy with an outside, out-of-the-box, pick like Lockhart?

Or will board members take the more traditional route and pick someone – maybe from Utah, maybe not – who has a long resume of public education experience, including advanced education or public administration degrees?

And if the State Board doesn’t pick Lockhart, are we going to see “revenge” legislation that could throw the board into partisan elections, or give the governor and Legislature more control over how future public school superintendents are selected and fired?

With public pressure growing for some kind of a tax hike for Utah’s lagging public school system, the new superintendent could find herself/himself in the hot seat – as could the State Board of Education.