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Gov. Herbert wants to change everything about how Utah schools are governed

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Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert has quietly raised, once again, what may be the most important question concerning public schools in Utah — one that goes directly to what one former Democratic lawmaker once told me was the state’s “dirty little secret.”

It is: Who controls education in Utah?

I’ve asked this before — to candidates for governor, the Legislature and the State School Board. I’ve asked it of state school superintendents. 

The answer I generally get adds up to everybody and nobody. They all make promises about education when running for office. Some of them control a piece of it. But the overall vision? Cue the crickets.

But now the governor has made a stab at changing that, although you have to look hard to find it. 

Hidden in his budget proposal for 2021, on page 10 at the end of his recommendation to add $292 million more to public education, he proposes changing everything about how schools are governed.

Herbert “recommends that future governors receive the constitutional authority to appoint the State Board of Education so that the governor can both more directly influence student outcomes and be held accountable for achieving results in the largest state-funded program.”

Did you catch that? Right now, you get to pick your board representative on Election Day. Herbert wants the governor to do this for you. He also would like to appoint the state superintendent of education.

I asked him about this when he came to the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards to discuss his budget.

“I get asked about education wherever I go,” he said. “It is the No. 1 topic. ‘What are you doing about education?’ And I can say, ‘a lot,’ when it comes to higher education. I appoint the board of regents. I appoint the board of trustees for every college and university. I ... have veto power with the board of regents on who the commissioner of education is. ‘What do you have to do with public education?’ Not a thing. I have a bully pulpit, which I’ve used pretty effectively. But I have no control.”

No one has total control. The governor has control over nothing.

Herbert said “governors probably in the past have all been reluctant” to push this issue, but “they all probably believed what I’m telling you now.”

And the thing is, he’s right. 

Yes, this would take away your right to vote for a State School Board representative. Keep in mind that you still would elect your local school board representative. Also, keep in mind that the fact I have to explain that is an argument in my favor. The system is confusing.

People will argue that voters make informed decisions, and that elections make these board members accountable to the people for the policy decisions they make.

Allow me to inject a note of realism. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of moderating some debates involving candidates for these offices. These are sincere people with varying degrees of knowledge as to how schools work. Some are teachers. Others are concerned citizens who decided, for one reason or another, to try to get elected to the State School Board.

But the audience at these debates is sparse. Take away the special interests and the relatives, and it would be even sparser. And while several people always chime in with questions from the live internet feed, that audience typically doesn’t represent much of a head count, either.

How many people cast informed votes for these offices? 

That question is about to become even more muddled, because the Utah Supreme Court just upheld a 2016 law that makes the State School Board partisan. Beginning this year, candidates will be either Republicans or Democrats.

This presents a different sort of accountability — to party ideology. You could argue that letting the governor appoint the board would do the same, but the accountability would be more direct. Individuals don’t always toe the line on every party platform.

Regardless, the board will begin changing this year. The question is whether it ought to change even more.

Herbert said he would be willing to give up some of his powers to make appointments on the university and college side. “Take away my veto power on the commissioner of education, but give me the superintendent of public education,” he said.

He also would settle for appointing maybe half the board, leaving the rest to voters.

But, of course, he won’t do any of this. Herbert isn’t running for reelection. He’s making this recommendation for the sake of future governors.

That’s one more reason to take it seriously.