SALT LAKE CITY — The night after a raucous town hall meeting at Brighton High School, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, received "a better welcome" Friday when he sat down with the Utah State Board of Education.
The meeting comes just days after Chaffetz announced he is a co-sponsor of legislation intended to do away with the U.S. Department of Education. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., says simply: "The Department of Education shall terminate on Dec. 31, 2018.”
"My passion for that, my commitment to that is borne of the fact that I trust you and I trust the teachers. I trust the school boards and the administrators, the parents. I don't know that we need a federal administration to maximize the education our kids get right here," Chaffetz said.
Some 4,500 people work for the U.S. Department of Education, he said.
"Payroll alone, more than half of those people earn in excess of $100,000 a year. A huge portion of them earn over $150,000 a year. So when we're struggling to not be dead last in our funding for our own pupils here in Utah, we've got to do something different. … I'm tired of us being dead last. It's embarrassing," Chaffetz said.
Funding in Washington, D.C., is more than $22,000 per student, he said.
"Compare that to what we're doing in Utah," he said.
The board's reception of Chaffetz was courteous, although reaction to the proposal was mixed.
Some board members said they consider the mandates of the U.S. Department of Education as "unconstitutional."
"I do support this bill and the notion of getting rid of the Department (of Education). I do see it as an unconstitutional organization in the first place," said board member Alisa Ellis.
But others expressed concerns about money appropriated to Utah to support programs that help vulnerable youths such as children with disabilities, who live in poverty or experience other disadvantages.
Board member Brittney Cummins said the department's history "grew out of inequity" and cautioned that dismantling it could imperil some populations.
No matter how well-intended at its start, the department "has grown into a monster bigger than it was intended to be," she said.
Chaffetz said providing block grants to states would enable state and local education authorities to prioritize funding for services such as special education or additional education supports in schools that serve impoverished neighborhoods.
"To say you trust us is a little bit of wishful thinking because we haven’t done that in the past," Cummins said.
Other board members, among them educators, said the federal agency adds value to education by creating standards, researching best practices and sharing that information nationwide, and providing training opportunities unavailable elsewhere.
"To know there’s a standard out there that everyone should be held to is comforting to me," said Kathleen Riebe, a board member who is a public school teacher.
Chaffetz said the board members' input was valuable and he hopes to continue the conversation.
"I want to get this right. I also need and want your input," he said.
Following the meeting, Chaffetz described the exchange as encouraging.
"I was very pleased by the reception, and they have a lot of good ideas and they care," he said. "And that’s my point. These people do care, and I trust them trying to figure it out.
"We’ve got to do something different unless we like being dead last in the funding formulas. We punch above our weight when it comes to testing, but I’m worried about the funding. … Utahns are paying those tax dollars, but there’s a lot of bureaucracy that’s eating up money that I’d prefer to be right here in the state of Utah."