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Voucher backers manhandle education

Published March 9, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Educators concerned about a bill they feel would ensure all public schools in Utah would get a failing grade under the new formula to evaluate student progress recently asked its sponsor, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, to come off the Senate floor and explain the measure.

He deferred all questions about the bill to Judy Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, the group that led the fight a few years ago for private school vouchers.

When Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, was presenting his SB82, a bill that would establish a student achievement record accessible to parents and other stakeholders, which public educators say duplicates already existing programs, he asked Judy Clark to explain the bill to the Senate Education Committee.

Another bill backed by Parents for Choice in Education requires the State Board of Education to select a vendor for a personalized development plan for educators. State Office of Education officials have told legislators the bill is written in such a way that only one vendor would qualify.

The education community worries that these examples point to a pattern of legislators allowing a group that has worked against public education to write legislation setting public education policy.

The school grading bill, SB271, is the most troubling, they say.

Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, sponsored a bill last year that established a pilot program to evaluate how schools were doing in terms of students' progress.

The bill allowed the Office of Education to develop parameters on the evaluation process, taking into account the percentage of special needs or troubled students in a school's population. It did not include actual grades, but set the stage for an eventual letter grading system.

Adams' bill, which is being driven by PCE, would establish letter grades based on a simpler evaluation of student progress that education officials say would guarantee failure for most public schools.

Educators say that under the Niederhauser bill, there would be a broad range of grades from As to Fs, and would more closely describe the actual effectiveness of the school. But under the PCE-backed bill this year, every school would get Cs, Ds, or Fs, a record that would harm the state's reputation for education and even discourage companies from relocating here.

They suspect that each school getting an F grade under the proposed system could be vulnerable to a parent-led transfer of a traditional public school to a charter school. PCE, besides leading the charge for private school vouchers, has been a champion of the charter school movement and of more vendor-provided digital technology in schools.

Many in the public education community have felt under attack by voucher proponents and their allies in the Legislature ever since the voters repealed a bill allowing parents to receive tax credit vouchers for sending their children to a private schools.

They say the voucher backers have been chipping away at the public education apparatus ever since.

Besides the school grading and student tracking bills that have emerged this year, the Legislature has made changes in how school board members are elected, restricting the number of candidates who can appear on the ballot and setting up a vetting process that has eliminated popular incumbents from even appearing on the ballot.

When the Utah Parent-Teacher Association presented a resolution recently that urged the Legislature to create a more inclusive system of school board elections, one of its representatives was grilled by PCE-friendly lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee about how representative parents and teachers really are.

By the way, educators who have complained about these trends have requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from certain legislators. —