The Utah Education Landscape Is a War Zone

parents_UT_examNo one wants to live in a country or a state or a city or neighborhood…or anywhere, with stupid people. It’s why we provide (mostly) free (or, rather, tax funded) public education. We share a common belief that educated people make for better citizens, neighbors, and friends.

And yet, public education, at least in Utah, is a bureaucratic warzone. Entrenched interests are at war with each other, scrambling for control, resources, and money. Whether it’s for the votes on the Board of Education, for funding from the Utah Legislature, or in support of political issue of the moment (like when the PTA came out, bizarrely, in favor of Count My Vote), the education establishment is an ongoing battleground.

Here are a few recent examples:

  • Common Core. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just Google the phrase or type it into the search bar in Facebook and start clicking on the links of groups supporting and opposing the National Governor’s Association created and Utah State School Board adopted standards. You’re likely to find some very one-sided opinions–no matter which side you are on.
  • With Martell Menlove retiring, the Board of Education appointed an interim state superintendent until they could select a permanent superintendent. The selection process has been criticized during Menlove’s selection, not because Menlove was selected, but because it had been short and without much apparent consideration for other candidates. The Board, understandably, wants to be more deliberate and careful, not to mention select a superintendent who will last more than two years.  But then last week Board member Terryl Warner raised a ruckus about the manner the temporary appointment was made, sending a public letter to the Board that questioned the legitimacy of the appointment. The Board hastily convened and formalized the appointment, but not before giving education establishment figures an excuse to accuse some Board Members of running a cabal against education.
  • Meanwhile, staffers of the Utah Office of Education negotiated at least one multi-million dollar contract on behalf of the state without informing the Board or seeking legal review. Then, the agreement was presented to the Board as a fait accompli, much to some on the Board’s dismay.  Why should anyone be surprised, then, that elements of the Board of Education feel like the Office of Education is a tail trying to wag the dog?
  • Paul Rolly posted a completely one sided review of the “rash”  of resignations (wherein “rash” is defined as “two”) and making it sound like the Board of Education was supposed to operate on consensus, rather than as representatives of constituents: meaning, they disagree from time to time and might–MAYBE–form factions. Hashtag shocker.  The point is: if members of the Utah Office of Education–or the Utah State Superintendents Association or the Utah School Board Association (USBA), both represented by Patti Harrington–are actively working against the Board of Education (oddly, the Board belongs to the USBA, and yet seems to be at war with the USBA as much as it works with the USBA), rather than for it, why do we have a Board of Education? Shouldn’t the Board, not staff, be setting education policy? And when has any committee selected by disparate constituents always agreed on everything? Why should we expect them to agree lockstep now, especially when their very purpose is to act as our representatives in governing education, not as the rubber stamp of education bureaucrats?
  • Last, the NCLB waiver renewal kerfluffle, and I do mean kerfluffle. After a much ado about the potential unconstitutionality of the NCLB waiver, the loss of state control over education to the feds, and much huffing and puffing about the potential cost…the Board passed it unanimously.  Education activists were left scratching their head over why Board members told them another outcome was possible. Could it be that the Board is as much in the dark about how the waiver works as activists?

Are you confused? You’re not alone.

Between the bureaucratic in-fighting between the Board of Education and the Office of Education staff, between the Board Members themselves, between the Legislature and the Board and the staff and the lobbyists and the union and the associations…

It’s a wonder the parents trust public education as much as they do.

Thank heavens for awesome teachers who teach in spite of organizational dysfunction and organizations that could probably use a dose of leadership and transparency. And yet, I wonder whether the skills that teachers learn  and use in order to manage a class room are really fungible to the management of a large bureaucracy with responsibilities for human services, curriculum standards, testing, resource allocation, legislative communication, policy development, litigation, and budgeting. Among other things.

Maybe it’s time that the Board select someone as superintendent with experience outside of the classroom, with knowledge how to handle a bureaucracy (rather than be handled by it), and the savoir faire to address long-standing problems in the Utah Office of Education.

In other words, someone who can bring peace to the warring factions and get back to what matters: helping teachers and schools created educated citizens.


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