Those of us who like Utah schools and think they do a pretty good job under some tough circumstances breathed a sigh of relief last week after a state judge struck down a law that threatened to needlessly politicize the entire education system.
In 2016, the Legislature passed a law that would have implemented partisan school board elections starting next year, meaning instead of candidates running as candidates, they would start running as Democrats and Republicans.
But 3rd District Judge Andrew Stone ruled that injecting partisan allegiances into the process violates a provision of the Utah Constitution that states: “No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission, or attendance in the state’s education systems.”
In so doing, Stone likely assured that, at least for the upcoming election, we’ll have candidates running as candidates, focused on their ideas to make education better, rather than fealty to some party or platform.
And that’s the way it should be, because we have too much partisanship and tribalism already, and schools shouldn’t be turned into yet another battlefield in the ideological warfare.
Now, nothing in law or in this ruling would prevent a school board candidate from touting the fact that he or she is a Republican or Democrat. And nothing would prohibit either party, if it chooses, from vetting candidates or voting to endorse candidates or pouring money into a candidate’s campaign.
And if you look at the school boards around the state, the makeup of Democrats and Republicans probably wouldn’t change all that much because whether it’s at the local or state level, the conservative parts of the state tend to elect Republican members and the liberal areas tend to elect Democratic members.
But it would have a profound impact on what type of Republican or Democrat is elected, and that’s really what the push for partisan school board races is all about.
It comes down to an attempted power grab by Republican Party delegates — and I say the Republican delegates because Republicans are the ones who get worked up over partisan school board elections and fought for the legislation.
Pure and simple, the delusional wing of the GOP — the ones who are calling their own party meetings so they can force their party’s leadership to continue a ludicrous legal fight that has the party teetering on the brink of bankruptcy — wants to be able to call the shots when it comes to who makes decisions about education in this state.
And what will that likely mean? Well, this is the crowd that pushed hard for the school voucher movement, so you’re likely to get an assault on public education generally.
They are so uniformly against the state’s standardized curriculum that they nearly ran Gov. Gary Herbert out of office, despite his sky-high popularity rating statewide.
The Eagle Forum faction has led the efforts against anything approaching a comprehensive sex education curriculum.
You want to snuff out the teaching of evolution or the Big Bang or climate change, cover up Michelangelo’s sculpture of “David” in art class or expand the list of banned books in English courses? This is your crew.
And if they can’t get it done through nonpartisan elections, then maybe partisan elections will do the trick.
But it’s precisely the wrong direction for Utah’s education system to be headed.
Now, I’m not an attorney, so I don’t know if Stone’s ruling will hold up. The Utah attorney general’s office is making the decision on whether to appeal, and I assume it will, partly because the attorney general is a partisan office, but also to appease the legislative powers.
And there will probably be some attempts to raise the issue during the upcoming legislative session, meaning more bitter fights on Capitol Hill.
But with the filing period for the 2018 school board elections just a few months off, there’s a good chance that we’ll see another round of nonpartisan school board races next year.
And we should be grateful for that, because these races should be a battle of ideas on how to help our kids succeed, not about whether there is an “R” or a “D” next to the name on the ballot.