House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s bid to be the state’s next schools chief — rather than taking a run at governor in 2016, as had long been speculated — is inspiring strong reactions from politicians and educators, with some embracing the idea and others worrying about her lack of experience in public education.
Lockhart confirmed Friday that she has applied for the job of state superintendent, aiming to replace retiring superintendent Martell Menlove. The state school board will decide whom to appoint.
"As I reach the end of my legislative service, I have spent many hours pondering the possibilities and opportunities for me to continue to serve Utah and her residents," Lockhart, R-Provo, wrote Friday in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. "I trust that my application, along with all the others submitted will be considered on its unique merits and evaluated with the goal of moving forward in a new and positive way."
Some, however, are not excited about her candidacy.
Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said she’d rather see someone with experience as a public school educator take the lead. Lockhart lists her profession as homemaker/registered nurse.
It’s critical for a superintendent to have experience with school operations, Gallagher-Fishbaugh said, as well as "experience in a classroom as an educator, as a principal and administrator, as someone who understands curriculum, someone who understands what teaching is like."
She said Utah has seen "example after example of people who are not in education micromanaging and imposing policy on the education system that has failed."
Gallagher-Fishbaugh cited school grading as an example. Utah schools now receive grades of A-F based on test scores and other measures under legislation passed in 2011.
The legislative relationship » Lockhart was among the many lawmakers who supported that initiative, which proponents say provides transparency and accountability.
This past legislative session, Lockhart also pushed to put a digital device in the hands of every Utah student. But that measure, priced at hundreds of millions of dollars, failed, with many lawmakers saying it was simply too expensive.
Lockhart worked on that bill with Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who said Friday he thinks she would do a good job if chosen as state superintendent. Her understanding of the inner workings of the Legislature is an important quality, he said, given how closely the state superintendent must work with lawmakers, who set the state’s education budget. Gibson also leads the House Education Committee.
"Do I think she’ll have a lot to learn? Yes, but the one thing I’ve noted working with Becky is she doesn’t pretend to know everything, that she’ll surround herself with people with good content knowledge," Gibson said. "She may not be an educator, she doesn’t have a teaching degree, but she’s a leader."
Lockhart did not respond Friday afternoon to additional questions about her possible goals as superintendent.
Changing the governor’s race » Losing one of his potential top rivals for the governor’s office doesn’t faze Gov. Gary Herbert, said his spokesman, Marty Carpenter.
Herbert will stay out of the selection of the new superintendent and won’t support any of the candidates, Carpenter said.
"The field [for the governor’s race] as it may shape up or may not shape up for 2016 is far less a consideration for the governor at this point than [for] a lot of people who follow politics closely," Carpenter said. "If everyone who had been rumored to run in the governor’s race decides to jump in, it wouldn’t change his position on this. … It’s not his decision to make, so he’s just staying neutral."
Utah State University political science professor Damon Cann said Lockhart may be positioning herself to be a leader on an issue where the governor has been criticized by conservatives — the Common Core education standards — and still could run against Herbert, although it is unlikely she would do so.
"Becky Lockhart was rattling cages and making some noise and all that, and she seemed to really be the one who had the most credibility to go after him," Cann said.
"At this point, it’s hard to imagine another challenger coming out of the woodwork who could be as strong as Becky Lockhart," he said. "… There would need to be a major misstep before Herbert would be vulnerable."Next Page >
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