Utah’s Common Core debate pits pro-establishment state school board against concerned voters

Sep 17, 2013 by

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah is considered one of the most conservative states in the nation, so it’s no surprise that a growing number of its residents are fighting to keep the new Common Core learning standards out of the state’s classrooms.

Many Republicans and conservatives believe Common Core – which the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) adopted in August, 2010 – will open the door to the gradual federalization of public education. They want to preserve state and local control over K-12 schools.

What is surprising about Utah’s Common Core debate is how USBE members are reportedly ignoring and belittling voters who ask them to reconsider their support of the national math and English standards.

Utah teacher and Common Core critic Christel Swasey complained in a recent op-ed that “the state school board continues to label teachers and others who long to reclaim local control and who want legitimate, non-experimental education standards, ‘the misinformed.’”

“The board won’t even respond to requests for specifics about what we’re so misinformed about,” Swasey writes.

Republican state Rep. Brian Greene is also troubled by the board’s dismissive attitude toward concerned parents and taxpayers.

According to Greene, the state board has undertaken a fairly extensive public relations campaign to convince Utahns that Common Core is good and that its critics are right-wing, Tea Party extremists.

He believes the board’s antagonism toward voters stems from the fact that its members owe their political careers to Utah’s teachers union and education establishment more than the voters. And since the education establishment favors the Common Core standards, Greene says the board members do, too.

“Board members are representative officials, but that’s not how they behave,” Greene tells EAGnews.

Greene is preparing legislation for next year’s legislative session that would shift the balance of power back to the voters.

A ‘we-know-best’ mentality


Greene seems to be onto something.

Many Utah residents are critical of the law that dictates how state school board members are chosen.

Here’s how it works: Utah residents who want to run for the USBE are required to submit their application, so to speak, with the state’s Nominating and Recruiting Committee.

The 12 committee members – most of whom have ties to the education establishment and Utah’s business community – sort through all the applications and choose three potential candidates for each of the state’s 15 districts.

The committee then forwards its choices to the governor, who whittles the list down to the two candidates per district who will appear on voters’ ballots.

The practical effect of the Nominating and Recruiting Committee is to allow Utah’s teachers union to act as gatekeepers for the state’s highest educational offices. That seemed to be the case in 2012, when 42 individuals sought one of the nine seats up for election, but only 18 of them made it to the final ballot.

Taxpayers never got a chance to find out about the 24 candidates who were omitted.

The worse part is if an incumbent school board candidate doesn’t toe the establishment’s line, he or she can be denied a chance for re-election by being kept off the ballot.

Institutionalized corruption?


A new report from the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, says the process “seems designed to undermine public trust in the integrity of the (nominating and election) system by institutionalizing back-room decision-making by business interests and education bureaucrats in deciding who gets the privilege of running for the state school board.”

The process also insulates candidates from the educational concerns of the average voter.

“The candidates try to appeal to the committee or the governor. In order to do that, you find out what’s important to the committee and the governor. That tends to be the status quo, top-down approach favored by the education establishment,” Greene says. “They don’t campaign to the people. They don’t have to tell the voters where they stand on the issues.”

And since the school board candidates don’t run as Republicans or Democrats, most voters don’t even know who the candidates are until they read their names on the ballot on Election Day, he adds.

That leads to a “uniform” state school board that “behaves as a bureaucracy, with a ‘we-know-best’ mentality,” Greene says.

Greene’s still-unwritten bill to revamp the board selection and election process will likely require USBE candidates to declare their partisan affiliation and to go through a primary process.

That will not only make candidates more responsive to voters, but it will elevate voters’ awareness of education issues and the need for meaningful K-12 reform.

That would be a welcomed development for Utah’s reformers who’ve been unable to pass sorely needed reforms, despite the state’s strong conservative leanings. The Utah Education Association – the state’s largest teacher union – worked with the education establishment to repeal a voucher law in 2007, for example.

The union-led establishment also convinced Republican lawmakers in 2012 to back down from an ambitious reform agenda and settle for a package of modest, watered-down changes to K-12 schools.

Greene’s forthcoming legislation will face an uphill battle. Similar bills have failed in recent years, but Greene believes this is the year it crosses the finish line.

He says the Common Core controversy has convinced Utah lawmakers and voters that it’s finally time to make the state school board more representative of the people’s will.

“If this process is going to be changed, this is the year to do it,” he says.

Utah’s Common Core debate pits pro-establishment state school board against concerned voters – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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