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It’s time to dissolve the Utah State Board of Education, George Pyle writes

Elected body does little to advance education and should be folded into the Utah System of Higher Education.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Nazzaro sits at his mother's feet as speakers react to the county's vote against a mask mandate in schools on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

The Utah State Board of Education keeps failing its tests. It is time to stop letting it take classes over again and just expel the whole enterprise from our educational system.

It is true that the majority of the state board did screw its courage to the sticking place a couple of times recently.

It managed to fight off pressure from members of the Legislature to issue a nonsensical ban on the largely imaginary presence of critical race theory in the public schools. And its leaders did properly rebuke a board member who frequently misuses her office as a platform from which to throw social media stones at LGBTQ students and their allies.

But when state board had a chance to take a much-needed stand in favor of mandating masks in public schools, it punted. And now its members are waffling — thought it has not yet caved — before the forces of cruelty on the issue of whether to stand up for students who might feel protected if they were able to use a different name, pronoun or gender identification in class.

In both cases, a major reason board members gave for their inaction was that someone might sue them. Well, yes, public bodies are often hauled into court by people, on either side of any issue, who don’t like a decision. It’s just part of the job. (And no personal cost to board members.)

If members of the board realized their primary responsibility was to see to the welfare of their students, not to duck responsibility or avoid the wrath of the Legislature, they might be less reluctant to act.

The idea behind having an independently elected school board is that its members might be laser-focused on running good schools, oblivious to any other political or bureaucratic demand. But that’s not how it’s working out.

Clearly, the number one threat to any child’s education these days is the pandemic. Even students who don’t get sick, or don’t carry the virus home to grandma, are facing periods of disruption — up to and including another year lost to closed classrooms and on-the-fly remote learning.

The best steps to avoid that are masks and vaccines. But the board ducked masks so we can’t expect it to take on the more controversial, yet infinitely more effective, tool of mandatory vaccines for everyone over the age of 12 as a requirement for entering a school building.

You know, like the vaccinations for chickenpox, measles, polio and diphtheria that have been required throughout civilized society for just about ever.

The board’s discussion of how to deal with students who would find school so much more welcoming and safe if they could choose for themselves how to be named, addressed or labeled was simply cringeworthy. Again, they were petrified that doing the right thing by a frightened student might get them in trouble. That allowing a considerate teacher to call a student by his/her/their preferred name would somehow be violating parental rights.

Of all the expressions made up of all the words all in the English language, the most hateful and odious is “parental rights.” Parents don’t have rights. Parents have responsibilities. And they have, practically and by law, the authority necessary to fulfill those responsibilities. The primary one being to protect children, their children, from abuse.

And refusing to take into consideration a child’s core identity is abuse. Abuse that teachers and administrators should at least avoid exacerbating, even if parents can’t manage it.

The state board of education should just go away. Assign its functions to the Utah System of Higher Education and its governor-appointed board.

It’s the way they do it in, for example, the state of New York, where the idea is that education from pre-K to med school should be as seamless and as mutually supportive as possible. And it was the idea when Utah merged the university-managing Board of Regents with the state’s system of technical and trade schools.

The Utah higher education board is pretty darn white and top-heavy with bankers and business people. But women are well-represented and its members are mostly drawn from the sensible center, people who have accomplished things in the real world and are willing to serve the greater good, but who might never consider running for elective office.

Embarrassing scandals are rare and the system sees its role more as supportive than as domineering, a sharing of expertise rather than second-guessing. And it provides a useful necessary check on bad ideas.

Such a system would likely spend less time pandering to right-wing goofiness and more energy getting stuff done.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is not angling for a seat on a new unified Utah Board of Regents. But he would agree to take his pay in the form of sweatshirts, T-shirts, backpacks and other school-logo swag.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate


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