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Reforming Utah's education system - especially how to provide better education for a growing number of students in a revenue-strapped state - is considered by candidates the main issue in this year's governor's race.

While it's still early in the contest - the candidate filing deadline isn't until April 15 - most of the gubernatorial hopefuls have already issued their education position papers.All seven candidates say the governor, alone, must lead the education battle of the 1990s. The governor must have a plan, they say, and use his office to bully others into some kind of action. Otherwise, the natural fighting between local school district officials, the State Office of Education, teacher associations - even between public and higher education officials - dooms any true reform.

Here are the candidates' views on education, with the warning that several candidates say they're still working on their solutions to education and may modify or expand their proposals later.

Richard Eyre (Republican, businessman, lecturer and writer)

Eyre wants a voucher system for public and private education. He believes forcing schools into a "market-driven" system will result in more money for public schools and smaller class sizes.

In brief, Eyre would give each parent a voucher worth part of the tax money now going for public education. (In his book "Utah in the Year 2000," Eyre suggests a $1,000 per year per student voucher, but that amount could change.)

Parents could shop around, deciding which school their child would attend. They'd give that school the voucher upon enrollment, and the school - public or private - would turn the voucher in for cash.

The voucher would be less than the amount each public school is allocated for each student within its boundaries. (The current Weighted Pupil Unit provided by the state's Uniform School Fund is $1,490 per student.) So, when a student left a public school for a private school, the public school would still get some money for that now-absent student. That "extra" money could go for teacher pay, classroom size reduction or other needs, says Eyre.

Likewise, it's unlikely that a private school could provide an adequate education for a student based solely on the voucher, so the parent would have to pay some additional tuition.

Everyone wins under this system, Eyre says. Public teachers get more money and smaller classes, parents and students get a choice, private schools get some state aid, education administration is trimmed through competitive demands and - best of all - public and private schools must compete for students, thus resulting in a better education (better product) for all.

Different voucher programs have been tried in other states, according to education administrators, with mixed results.

Eyre also advocates educational changes such as: balancing "practical" and "classical" education; requiring a course on family skills for high school juniors; requiring a course on personal ethics for seventh-graders; upgrading vocational curriculum; after-school courses for adults; alternative certification for retired persons and others who qualify by experience to teach some courses; greater emphasis on reading, writing, listening and other communication skills; and an income tax check-off box for a teacher's education fund.

Mike Leavitt (Republican, insurance executive):

Leavitt whole-heartedly endorses the state's Strategic Education Plan, the product of a committee on which he sat for two years, and promises to use it as his education blueprint. Of all the candidates, Leavitt says only he has a detailed "business plan" to help education and shows a 25-page assessment of education and its problems to prove he'll get the job done.

Leavitt's plan is long and involved. But the key to the plan is competency-based education, where a child - with participation of the parents - is placed on an individual learning path. As the child progresses and proves competency, he advances.

In the ideal case, there would be no need for grades, such as first, second or third or A, B or C. Class rankings would give way to a progression of achievement. Under the plan, a child who now is in the third grade may be doing math on a fifth-grade level, reading at the third-grade level.

"Broad A, B, C, D grading systems are often not true measurements of competence," says Leavitt. "Many students figure out how to work the `system' to get passing grades without learning very much." Such grading also could be replaced simply by showing competency achievement and moving on to higher skills.

Leavitt favors some freedom of choice in education but strongly opposes any voucher system, specifically criticizing Eyre's proposals. Leavitt wants Utah teacher salaries to be "on a comparative professional scale" in line with salaries in surrounding states.

The Utah Education Association tried, in the 1992 Legislature, to increase funding along the lines detailed in the state's strategic plan - a plan the Legislature adopted in theory. But conservative lawmakers refused, saying promising such increased funding equates to promising a tax increase if natural revenue growth doesn't increase sufficiently.

"(Gubernatorial) candidates who believe they can dramatically improve public education without more money are either naive or untruthful or both," says Leavitt. "But increasing taxes is not an alternative to raise money for education, either."

He promises to better utilize school trust lands to pay for new technology for the schools. Redevelopment agencies, which syphon off property taxes from schools, must be brought under control. He'll fight the trend of education getting a smaller piece of the state funding pie and trim state board and school district administration by 3 percent a year for three years.

Patrick Shea (Democrat, media attorney):

Shea is a recent entrant into the governor's race and is still in the process of gathering data from various campaign task forces he's set up. Still, he has several specific ideas for education - with more to come as the campaign season wears on.

First, Shea would decrease class size in grades kindergarten through sixth grade. "I know the state Strategic Education Plan talks about class size reduction through the third grade. But I think through the sixth grade is still critical." Without significant class size reduction, teachers "are custodians rather than educators."

Second, while Shea believes in site-based decisionmaking - "the code word for education these days" - the key is giving teachers "effective operational control" of the classrooms. To Shea, that means the two or three children causing discipline problems in an average class must be dealt with by an administrator or counselor so the teacher isn't dragged out of the classroom.

Finally, Shea says Utah's current budget process almost ensures that education administrators, teachers and parents are left out of the process.

"Gov. Bangerter has orchestrated a (revenue) surplus each year, and then throws the money to the Legislature to divide up - lacking any meaningful input into the process by educators."

A number of goals outlined in the governor's and Legislature's own Strategic Education Plan could have been funded the past year, Shea says, with those ongoing surpluses.

"Class size could be reduced. Real economic incentives given to teachers. But there's no rational budgeting process."

Shea promises to use the governor's office as a bully pulpit, pounding home education excellence at every opportunity. Even small things, like having an outstanding teacher to dinner once every two weeks in the Governor's Mansion, will help, he believes.

Merrill Cook (Independent Party leader and businessman):

Cook, a former Republican, has a five-point plan for education - all aimed at increasing teacher pay which, he says, equates to better education.

First, Cook wants the governor and Legislature to have direct budget access to Utah's 20,000 classrooms. Cook says that in the current budget year $60 million more was allocated for education. Yet, by the time the money moved through the State Board of Education and the administrations of the state's 40 school districts, only $18 million went for higher teacher pay - Cook's main goal.

Second, consolidate the 40 districts into 25 districts. Cook estimates savings of $35 million in non-teaching posts.

Third, eliminate much of the curriculum development in the State Office of Education and the 40 districts by streamlining the process, saving $10 million.

Fourth, allow natural attrition by non-teaching personnel to reduce the number of administrators over a four-year stretch.

This alone could save Utah $12.5 million the first year and up to $55 million over four years. Such a program saves money that could go for teacher raises or classroom size reduction, Cook says.

Finally, shift all current career- ladder funds directly into teacher salaries. This would raise the average teacher pay by $2,000, Cook says.

"The savings from this five-point plan will end up to be $100 million a year," says Cook. Taken together, this would quickly allow the pay of Utah's teachers to reach the national average, he says.

In 1965, when the test scores of Utah's schoolchildren began to fall, Cook says that teacher pay made up 54 percent of public education spending. Today, teacher pay is 44 percent of the total. "Over four years we could get teachers' pay back up to 52 percent of the total. This means an increase of $5,000 per classroom with present funds and no tax increase," Cook says.

Mike Stewart (Republican, Salt Lake County commissioner):

Stewart, a former teacher, has a 10-point, detailed plan for education. Like Leavitt, Stewart believes student progress shouldn't be automatic - "not tied to time in a classroom seat" - but should be allowed only after competency is proven.

Key is an integrated system, where high school students are counseled and then progress into areas of interest and jobs. "Our high school principals just aren't talking to our community college presidents; there is no collaboration at any level," Stewart says.

Teacher pay should reflect market demands. For example, math and science teachers must be paid close to what they can earn in the private sector, otherwise the best and brightest will leave teaching, or upon university graduation will never enter in the first place.

Public education must be closely tied to economic development - students should be taught skills that will allow them to be employed, and job growth provides the tax revenue to lower class size and pay teachers more.

Closely watching research will allow Utah schools to utilize new technology quickly and train students in the jobs of the future.

As governor, Stewart would initiate programs that would involve parents and volunteers in the schools.

"I don't slight the traditional liberal education," says Stewart. "But job preparation in high-paying areas, including technical fields, must be encouraged."

Senior volunteers must be introduced into the public education system - as guest speakers or workshop presenters in many areas and capacities.

The governor, Legislature and State School Board must set down definable standards of what students should know. But the responsibility of reaching those goals must stay with the local school districts, local control. Such goals should not be more than 50 percent of the curriculum, giving local districts flexibility to meet patron demands for specific education.

Legislators should do away with the current piecemeal curriculum requirements - which they add to often - and provide only a general, overall philosophical statement of purpose and function to guide local school districts.

"The Legislature shouldn't make statements on what education must do and then fail to finance the changes it has decreed," Stewart said.

"Finally, we need a governor with a vision of education. Platitudes are fine, but not enough." Utah needs a governor with a thorough, detailed, defined plan that will bring business, higher education, public education and parents together. "I will be such a governor."

Stewart Hanson Jr. (Democrat, former judge):

Saying the governor must be the sole voice in driving an education plan, Hanson criticized GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter, saying Bangerter has failed Utah education five different ways.

First, says Hanson, Utah's current education systems must be assessed. That includes an accurate study of demographics - how many kids are coming into the education system, what has been effective in restructuring schools before, standards to be achieved, what required financial support means and how to conduct periodic evaluations.

"School trust lands must be properly managed," says Hanson, "to maximize financial support for education."

Local school boards must be trained in policy development; Utah congressmen should lead in changing the federal education funding formula - which punishes states like Utah with small populations; special-needs children shall be provided pre-school and school services to help them reach their maximum potential; and tough accountability measures should be established so that all students achieve proficiency.

Hanson stresses that teachers should be allowed maximum flexibility.

While wanting teachers to hold such power, Hanson adds that governance of schools is a cooperative process that must involve administrators, teachers, families and community members.

Hanson doesn't promise or rule out a tax increase for schools.

"Should additional funding be needed, we must examine the total tax programs in the state and look at all possible options to establish a balanced tax system based on fairness and ability to pay," says Hanson.

Dixie Minson (Republican, former state industrial commissioner):

Minson agrees with the Strategic Education Plan but adds some of her own ideas.

Parents must take a greater responsibility in their children's education. Minson favors greater choice regarding which school a child can attend. "Parents must become partners in their schools."

Each school should become involved with local businesses and industries so that specific students can be educated to meet requirements of the workplace. Schools must give students the opportunity to develop unique workplace skills.

As governor, Minson would "set an example" for other Utahns by adopting five classrooms.

"I'll donate $5,000 of my income as governor to those five classrooms," says Minson. The money would go for supplies and other needs. She'd expect a report on successes and failures in those five classrooms at each report card period.

She'd also visit each of the classrooms to see first-hand how the students are doing in their studies.