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In our opinion: COVID-19 may finally force an answer: ‘Who’s in charge of Utah’s education?’

The current pandemic has forced both public and higher education to innovate quickly and, in some cases, effectively.

Jessee Osborne, lead custodian at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy, walks through the school’s empty halls on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Utah’s K-12 public schools will remain closed for in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The current pandemic has forced both public and higher education to innovate quickly and, in some cases, effectively. While not every aspect has been positive, this unique incubator of ideas should not go to waste.

When life returns to a semblance of normal, the education establishment, parents and public officials need to evaluate what worked, build from that and encourage continuing innovation.

They may finally have the courage to confront this age-old question in Utah: Who controls public education?

The answers to that one generally translate into everyone and no one. When things go well, everyone is responsible. When they go poorly, fingers start pointing.

Few people see this problem more clearly than Utah’s governors, who have the power to appoint the Board of Regents to govern higher education, but who have zero power to influence K-12, the one area of state influence that affects nearly every family.

In his 2020 budget recommendation, Gov. Gary Herbert asked lawmakers for the power to appoint the State Board of Education, whose members now are elected by the people. In a meeting with the Deseret News/KSL editorial board, he said he would be open to a plan that would allow him to appoint at least some board members, or perhaps to give up his ability to veto the appointment of the commissioner of education in exchange for the power to appoint the superintendent of public education.

Some may see wisdom in keeping public education fractured. With the Legislature holding the purse strings, the state board of education and the superintendent setting policies and allocating funds, and several locally elected school boards handing the daily needs of local school districts, no one can hijack the system for political or partisan purposes.

But the result tends to be confusion, especially on the part of voters, and a lack of innovation.

The pandemic has forced innovation on schools in a way the system couldn’t. Teachers have had to invent online classes on the fly. This has led to mixed results, but principals and school boards ought to insist on learning from the best examples and exploring whether effective online options could enhance classroom learning once things return to normal. Virtual reality could enhance, not replace, traditional learning.

This may be more likely to happen if a future governor is empowered to nudge the system in a meaningful way.

Meanwhile, innovation may come easier in the realm of higher education, where private and public universities compete head to head. Among other things, the pandemic ought to force institutions of higher learning to grapple with important issues concerning access and cost.

Why, for instance, should an online course cost as much tuition as an in-person course, which presumably requires the use of expensive facilities? Could more sophisticated and effective online curricula, with valuable interactive components, replace many in-person classes, reducing the need for new construction and parking? Do these institutions spend too much money on athletic teams that, for most schools, are a drain on budgets?

Are current grading systems effective? Many schools have altered the way they assign grades to students in light of the pandemic. Are traditional grades the best way to reflect student performance?

And while answering these questions, education leaders and lawmakers need to confront questions about access. Are students from low-income families doomed to forever be behind their more affluent classmates who grew up with fast internet access and the latest technology?

Despite the urgings from some former presidential candidates, the United States isn’t likely to fund free tuition programs any time soon. Yet competitive pressures and innovation, if they take hold, are bound to drive down costs.

This, along with finally putting someone in charge of K-12 education in Utah, could do much to turn an uncomfortable pandemic period into an era of meaningful change.