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Herbert, Johnson present different visions for Utah education; both call for unity

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert and his Republican challenger, Jonathan Johnson, have both identified education as a key issue in their campaigns, committing to unifying lawmakers and educators in improving student outcomes.

It's a topic that's gained momentum this month in light of renewed debate over the Common Core State Standards and SAGE, the Utah-developed student assessment of growth and excellence used in third through 11th grades.

The powers of Utah's governor are limited when it comes to setting education policy. But Herbert and Johnson have identified different priorities in guiding the Utah Legislature and education leaders as they deliberate over funding, academic standards and other issues.

"Although I don't have a lot to do under the law, I do have the bully pulpit, and it's something I'm passionate about," Herbert told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards. "My job's going to be to set the vision and see if we can't bring people together."

Herbert has previously joined others in calling for Utah to become among the top 10 states for education, as well as getting 66 percent of the state's working adult population with a college degree or certification by 2020.

Recently, the governor asked state leaders to set a goal of making Utah the top state in education and student performance, though he hasn't identified specific metrics for the goal.

Utah's national rankings on NAEP, a national standardized test given every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders, rose last year while national performance declined. Utah's steady performance put the state as high as 10th place in eighth-grade reading and as low as 20th place in fourth-grade math.

But the key to going further, Herbert said, is involving parents more in education decision-making, recruiting and retaining quality teachers, and rewarding their success.

"We're not that far off. It's going to take a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, which is going to be the toughest thing to do. There's a lot of divisiveness out there in the education marketplace," he said. "I plan to change that, to fix the divisiveness and see if we can't unite."

Johnson said personalization and localization would serve as "guiding principles" in his vision for Utah's education system. That means giving parents more options to customize their child's school experience and not being "beholden to outdated, one-size-fits-all systems," he said.

It also means reversing "top-down" management by giving greater decision-making authority to local school boards, spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, and reducing the number of education bills in the Legislature, he said.

"Those are all things that we need to do to allow parents to personalize their kids' education and to let teachers have more flexibility," Johnson said. "The good ideas should bubble up from the bottom."

But discord between the Legislature, Utah State Board of Education, governor's office, teachers unions, parents and other groups has stunted academic progress, he said.

"Utah has, I think, a dysfunctional education governance system," Johnson said. "To me, the governor's role is to get that group of people together, figure out how to align those various groups (and) get behind a common goal. At the end of the day, the goal should be our children, our students, learning how to learn and loving to learn."

Herbert agrees that disharmony among education policymakers has distracted the state from reaching its goals, which is why he recently changed his tone on Utah's use of the Common Core and the SAGE test.

The governor has historically upheld the standards, commissioning a study of their effectiveness and a legal analysis on the question of federal overreach in their adoption. And despite positive results from those reports, a negative debate continues over Common Core, so Herbert asked the State School Board this month to move beyond the standards.

"Whatever the brush fire was, it's become worse," Herbert said. "This fighting, this divisiveness, this controversy is not healthy for the state, it's not healthy for the education system, and heaven knows it's not good for our students."

Opposition to the Common Core has been a fixture in Johnson's campaign. Currently, the State School Board is charged with adopting statewide standards while school districts adopt their own curriculum to meet those standards.

But the chairman of Overstock.com said school districts should be given the authority to adopt their own academic standards, rather than having those benchmarks set at the state level. He also sees local flexibility as a product of how education dollars are spent.

"I'd love to pay teachers more. I think we could probably do it and still spend the same amount of money if we just got rid of the top-heavy bureaucracy that we have," Johnson said. "I think no one can influence the discussion more than a governor who acts like a leader and tries to bring interests together toward a common goal of having our kids learn."

Voters will decide between Herbert and Johnson in the June 28 Republican primary. The nominee will go on to face Democratic nominee Mike Weinholtz in the November general election.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen