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John Florez: Lawmakers keeping schools in constant chaos

From 13 years ago to today, state leaders and legislators seem more intent on drafting bills and creating programs to supposedly focus on education — but they have yet to maintain much sustained innovation and adaptability to today's students.
From 13 years ago to today, state leaders and legislators seem more intent on drafting bills and creating programs to supposedly focus on education — but they have yet to maintain much sustained innovation and adaptability to today's students.
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“There are ‘too many hands on the steering wheel.'...” Utah’s public education is “an outdated and inflexible system and an ineffective management structure,” according to the 2002 Employers’ Education Coalition (EEC) established by Gov. Michael Leavitt and echoed in 2012 by state Sen. Howard Stephenson, chair of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

If politicians and business leaders knew that about public education 13 years ago, why are they still doing studies and wanting to spend more tax dollars on a system they found to be ineffective and outdated? Just think of the tax dollars spent and students denied an education for the 21st century when policymakers knew our school structure was part of an outdated system. It seems disingenuous for lawmakers to keep adding more laws and programs while ignoring their own past studies.

Then last week, Gov. Gary Herbert announced he was going to have a 10-year plan for education. Well, what happened to his Commission on Educational Excellence? What happened to "66 percent by 2020?" And what happened to the students in the system when the problem was clearly identified 13 years ago? Most children who started kindergarten in Utah in 2002 should be on track to graduate from high school in 2015.

In 2013, the Utah Legislature created its “Education Task Force” to identify “long-term education policies ... to improve the state’s economic prosperity.” It was supposed to guide legislators in formulating policies that would accomplish the mission laid out by its leadership. But before the ink was dry on SB169, which created it, there were numerous bills filed by lawmakers that were not integrated according to the intent of the bill.

The 2015 Legislature seems to be behaving as though the Education Task Force’s intent does not apply to it, and some lawmakers have gone ahead and filed more bills to deal with education. Also, business groups are calling for more taxes for education. With a constant barrage of studies, laws, regulations and data requirements, one can see why our public education system is in constant chaos and without any clear direction. Even now, lawmakers seem ready to create more laws without knowing what should be the mission for public education for a digital age.

The 2002 EEC study provided the most significant findings that focused on the management structure and execution strategy for public education that had drifted from its core mission because of “‘too many hands on the steering wheel,’ making it unclear who is in charge and who is responsible for what.”

It recommended the following key points: “Modify the current management structure to strengthen the state board of education/state superintendent to drive implementation of the mission of core academic progress. Combine accountability with authority ... clarify the respective roles of the state legislature, the state board of education, the state superintendent, the local school boards, and the school district superintendents.”

Solutions were recommended for these problems 13 years ago, and here we are today still with “too many hands on the steering wheel” and doing studies on an outdated and inflexible system. It appears lawmakers want to give the impression they care about education by passing unrelated laws rather than providing our children the education they need to succeed.

The governor and the Legislature seem to ignore the Utah State Board, which has responsibility for education under the state constitution. The apparent charade over education will continue until we see that our leaders have the political will to restructure education for the 21st century.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. Email: jdflorez@comcast.net