Are We Asking the Right Questions About the Board of Education?

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Board of EducationA couple weeks back, contributors to the Utah Politico Hub examined the role of the State Board of Education in students learning. Does the Board have a duty to parents or to students?

The response was impressive, with parents, activists, and even a couple members of the State Board of Education weighing in. You can find those posts here.

As I’ve thought about the topic since, though, I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps we–the public–understand what the Board of Education does and how it works.

Misconceptions about the Board of Education

  1.  Who controls standards, certification, and curriculum?

The first misconception I’ve found is over who has control over educational standards, teacher qualifications, and curriculum.

In Utah, it is the State Board of Education that, according to the state constitution, has  “general control and supervision of the public education system.” Under Utah Statute 53A-1-402, the Board is responsible to establish, among other things,  “qualification and certification of educators and ancillary personnel,” “competency levels” and “graduation requirements,” “curriculum and instruction requirements,” “school productivity and cost effectiveness measures,” and “school productivity and cost effectiveness measures.”

However, that doesn’t stop parents from going straight to their legislator–who really has little control over these standards–to demand that something be done.

For example, during a meet the candidate meeting earlier this year, I listened as several concerned citizens expressed, very passionately, their concerns about educational outcome requirements to the individual seeking nomination to a legislative office. When the candidate assured them that she would do all she could to change the curriculum, I raised my hand and noted that under the state constitution the state legislature really had very little control over curriculum.

They–the candidate and the concerned citizens–looked at me like I had just grown a cabbage out of the side of my head.

This is a misconception I run into repeatedly.  Parents want to see legislators–who tend to be more responsive–to do something, but few realize that the legislature, while it holds the purse, does not control the setting of standards, teacher qualifications, or curriculum.

That leads us to another gray area about the Board:

  1. How are Board Members selected and how does that process affect their constituent responsiveness?

Unlike legislators, the constitutional state officers (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Auditor, and Treasurer), federal representatives, and other elected officials, Board members must undergo a vetting process defined by statute before getting to the ballot.

First, a recruiting and nominating committee whose composition that includes representatives from various trade groups (business sectors) make up half of the committee and the other half representing parents, teachers, administrators, local school boards, higher ed, and charter schools.  All committee members are all appointed by the Governor.

Second, individuals sign up to be considered as candidates.

Third, the recruiting and nominating committee submits least three names from the list of candidates for each district to the Governor.

Fourth, the Governor vets the candidates, which usually includes interviews.  He will place two names on the ballot for each open seat (half of the board seats are open each even year).

Fifth, the voters select a new member of the Board of Education.

If you’re paying attention, the process defined by statute would appear to affect to whom the Board members respond. If a current Board member wants to be selected for a second term, there’s a clear incentive to please the Governor since he’ll be the one deciding if they should be on the ballot.

While, there is also an incentive to please the employer groups from the various business sectors, as well as the groups representing parents, teachers, administrators, their influence gets watered down compared to the Governor’s.

Last, after the Governor and interest groups on the nominating committee, there’s an incentive to please the Board district’s general population.

In contrast, the members of the legislature are selected through the caucus and convention system and then the general election. Neither the Governor nor any nominating and recruiting committee play any formal role in their selection.

  1. What other interest groups are affecting education policy and how?

In her post on the Board of Education here at Utah Politico Hub, Board Member Jennifer Johnson talked about her surprise to learn that Administrative Rules are reviewed and affected by district superintendents prior to appearing on the Board’s agenda.

[T]here is a practice whereby the drafts of State Board administrative rules are reviewed by a committee of a lobbying association of district superintendents. This happens before the suggested changes are ever made available to board members and the public. I’m sure the practice came about with innocent intent, but it does mean that those rules, whilst outside of the public eye, may be customized to the interests of district superintendents.

Whether you think this practice is benign or not, the fact that it happens out of sight of the public should give you pause. Further, the lobbying association–Utah State Superintendents Association (USSA)–has clashed with pro-local control advocates in the past, and has duty to the superintendents, not to parents. When the Utah Legislature considered (and later passed) a controversial school grading law in 2013, it was USSA leaders that blasted legislators for creating a school grading system that would be a tool intended, by its supporters, to give parents an idea about how their school matched up against others in the state.

Johnson also noted that most of the policy that comes before the Board of Education comes out of task forces and committees that meet during the day, when parents are at work and cannot attend.

Whoever gets themselves on these task forces has the ability to influence public education policy decisions.  Those task forces usually meet during the day and therefore many parents are excluded from involvement because of work or child-care conflicts.

If policy is formed by those who show up–or who are employed to show up–it will be those groups that set the policy, not parents.

What other questions should we be asking?

There’s more to the Board than just how you get on it and who sets its agenda. What other questions might parents and other interested individuals ask as they examine the policies it creates?

What about licensing of educators?

  • What does/should a license represent? A level of excellence in teaching/administration? The certification of safety to be with kids? A set of expertise and knowledge? An approval for LEAs to hire the licensed person?
  • Should there be a basic license with associated database for all people that get background checks and fingerprinting (coaches, bus drivers, custodians, etc.) who might be alone and unsupervised with a kid?
  • Should LEAs (districts and charters) be required to only employ licensed educators?

Are there others? I think there are, but until we can get past simplistic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ distinctions and look closer at the effects of the procedures and groups that affect public policy, we won’t really ever understand how to better serve the students Utah’s public education system serves.

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