By Boyd Matheson and Christine Cooke


by Boyd Matheson
by Boyd Matheson and Christine Cooke (not pictured), both of the Sutherland Institute

Education, which represents two-thirds of our state budget and is vital to our future, continues to be front and center in Utah’s political and policy debates. It is worthy of our attention and our best efforts to engage in serious, meaningful dialogue. We are convinced that a marketplace of educational options and a culture that respects the unique, individual learning needs of students is critical.

In order to cut through the clamor of political rhetoric, here are a few of our insights on this issue of educational standards:

No matter who you’re voting for in this year’s gubernatorial race, Utah’s policy dialogue should move beyond the deeply pitted “anti-Common Core” and “defending Utah Core” rhetoric.

By way of background, the Common Core are state-level standards in language arts and mathematics. The standards were created in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Since then federal government has heavily incentivized states to adopt the Common Core through Race to the Top grants and waivers from the heavy penalties of the No Child Left Behind initiative. In total, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards; Utah adopted them in 2010. Because of the federal mechanism used to spread the standards nationwide, many Utahns have been concerned about their effect on local control of education.

The fact is, we all want the finest education to be accessible to our kids — quality standards, meaningful curriculum, rich opportunities. But to do so, our conversation needs to progress from problems to solutions. We should have a meaningful discussion about academic standards in general. Utah has some of the most passionate and committed parents in the nation and a slew of intelligent policymakers and analysts. Here are some questions we can ask to get the conversation started.

  • What is the purpose of standards? Is it to hold policymakers accountable for education? Is it to challenge students to higher levels of performance?
  • What effect have our standards had on curriculum, teachers and students? Do they constrain districts to a certain curriculum? What effect do we hope they have on curriculum, teachers and students?
  • The state constitution gives the State Board of Education “general control and supervision of the public system”; traditionally the board creates standards while districts create curriculum. What level of government (State Board of Education or districts) should create academic standards, and why?
  • What ought to be the content in our standards, and what rubric are we using to ensure that content is rigorous and reflective of Utah educational values?
  • How can parents and the public get involved in the creation or modification of standards?

For too long the education policy bandwidth has been taken up on the question of whether a candidate, policymaker or neighbor was for or against the controversial Common Core. But that’s too easy. We shouldn’t let our policymakers or ourselves off the hook. Let’s have a real conversation about standards. Then let’s do something bold, and create for Utah the best academic standards in the best way.

We look forward to driving meaningful dialogue on education for Utah and Utah’s future.


Boyd Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute. Christine Cooke, J.D., is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.