I wrote in Wednesday’s column about what I considered was the bullying of Utah PTA representative Deon Turley by Sens. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Mark Madsen, R-Lehi. My premise then was rebutted by Sen. Deidre Henderson, who thought the questioning of Turley was tenacious, but fair.
She argued that legislators have a responsibility to ask the tough questions so they can better understand the issues when they cast their votes. No argument there. She and I listened to the same exchange in the Senate Education Committee on March 6. She heard persistent but fair questioning. I heard an agenda being pushed by Stephenson and Madsen.
We both are sincere in our assessments. But I will suggest her conclusions come from living in an echo chamber. And the line of questioning aimed at Turley by the two conservative, staunch proponents of private school vouchers, brings up a deeper issue.
Many observers at the Legislature, including yours truly, believe that certain constituent groups in Utah, no matter how diligent they are or how many people they represent, have no seat at the table when bills affecting their constituencies are heard. They include environmental organizations, advocates for the underprivileged and disabled and groups sympathetic to public school teachers.
Representatives of the pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education or the Eagle Forum never get the hostile grilling that Turley was subjected to. When two Democratic senators asked uncomfortable questions of embattled Republican Attorney General John Swallow, they were ruled out of order.
Whether Stephenson’s and Madsen’s questioning was rude or simply persistent can be argued, and Henderson and I can honestly disagree. But the questioning made one thing clear: The two senators were not in the least interested in what Turley had to say in opposition to a proposed resolution supporting a constitutional amendment changing the way the superintendent of public schools is selected.
Currently, that choice is made by the State Board of Education. The change would require approval of that choice by the governor and confirmation by the Senate.
During her testimony, Turley mentioned a resolution the PTA had passed that didn’t address the legislation directly, but was relevant to the debate because it affirmed the PTA’s support of the Board of Education in the wake of legislative proposals that would limit who could appear on the ballot for election to the board.
Stephenson and Madsen did not ask her why the PTA took that position. They both had supported the legislation in the past that created a selection committee, weighted in favor of the pro-voucher community, which would pick three names from the applicants to send to the governor, who would select two names for the ballot.
The result was that incumbents who had won election by popular vote were eliminated by the selection committee, giving voters no chance to re-elect them.
Stephenson and Madsen were focused on the legitimacy of the resolution. They wanted to know who voted for it and how representative it was of actual PTA members.
When Turley answered the question, Stephenson didn’t like the answer. So he challenged her, saying he hadn’t received a notice about the resolution — which was passed, by the way, nine years ago.
Henderson says the senators are right to probe into issues so they can vote the right way. So why didn’t they probe into the issues? Instead they wanted to challenge the legitimacy of the PTA representative.
Turley twice ran for the Legislature as a Democrat in Utah County. So maybe that disqualified her as a legitimate witness.
But the deeper issue is that the two senators have criticized the PTA before because of the national association. Never mind that most PTA officers I’ve known are soccer moms, active in the LDS Church, usually holding positions in the church’s Relief Society.
Boy, that’s a socialist group if ever I’ve heard of one!
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