Tribune Editorial: Legislature takes an incomplete on school governance

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gayle Ruzicka, Utah Eagle Forum, jokes as she speaks in support of Sen. Jim Dabakis bill, SJR16 during a Senate Education Committee meeting at the Capitol, Friday, March 2, 2018.

A wholesale change to the way the state of Utah manages its system of public education is probably a good idea. But such a change should be approached as a term paper, not a pop quiz.

It was less than two weeks before the mandatory end of the 2018 session of the Legislature when the ever-dynamic Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, brought up a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would abolish the generally anonymous Utah Board of Education.

Quick. Without using Google. Who is the member of the board from your district? If you already know, chances are you are related to him or her.

Generally, nobody hears about the board members, individually or collectively, except when they make news by having a debate where someone objects to modern science, or to real sex education, being taught in our schools.

Or when someone says that the state’s schools should ignore national standards and guidelines and develop a Utah-specific curriculum. As if the value of pi were different here than it is in Georgia or Vermont.

The Legislature has even had a difficult time figuring out how the members of the board should be elected. A federal court threw out the old system, which used a nominating committee from business and education to screen candidates. Then a system that was set up to fill the seats through a partisan election system was also rejected.

Dabakis’ original idea was to do away with the board altogether and replace it with a single state superintendent, appointed by the governor, to oversee the Office of Education. The quite reasonable idea being that people not only know who the governor is, but already tend to blame him for any failings of the system. So the real responsibility, accompanying the blame, should be with the governor and his cabinet.

That idea roared through a Senate committee and through the full Senate before being amended -- to a system where the board stays but its members, like the Board of Regents that oversees the state’s universities, are named by the governor-- and finally rejected by the House

A state education office is needed, to provide oversight, set general curriculum standards and distribute state and federal money. And a single appointed superintendent -- especially if governors would choose on the basis of real knowledge and experience rather than treating it as a political patronage job -- could get the job done at least as well as the status quo. And could very well reduce the embarrassment factor now associated with the board.

Either way, most of the decisions that really affect life in the classroom would, and should, still be made by local school boards.

Making a big decision like this in a great big hurry is already something the Legislature does far too often. This one justifies a lot more public deliberation before any particular proposal is sent to the voters for ratification.

Neatness counts on an assignment like this. And lawmakers should show their work.