Tribune Editorial: Keep (political) partying out of Utah’s schools

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled "Pilgrim's Regress," appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019.

The Utah Constitution may have given them no choice, but the Utah Supreme Court’s decision this week to allow partisan Utah Board of Education elections will make Utah’s education system a little more ideological and a little less practical.

The people who pushed this to the Supreme Court had a good civic attitude but a weak legal argument. They said Board of Education members were education employees and therefore not allowed to participate in partisan politics.

The court disagreed, thereby allowing the legislative branch carry through with its decision to define the board as a partisan one.

Almost four years ago, the Utah Legislature — dominated by one party — passed a law to put the Board of Education through the same political processes that choose candidates for Legislature, governor and Congress.

Like the Utah Republican Party’s five-year failed court battle to control primary elections, the intent is to enforce ideological purity on the people who hold elected office. This, at a time when it’s a matter of debate what Republican purity even means.

At its narrowest, the effect of this decision will be limited. Party affiliations of the 15-member state board will become known, but it’s not like the current board is a bastion of secret Democrats. It is dominated by conservatives, and it’s had its share of hard-core types challenging accurate sex education and federal control of algebra.

The real fear is that legislators might take the next step and extend partisanship to local school boards. Like municipal elections, these base-level electoral offices should be the epitome of practical government. Introducing partisan litmus tests would turn away capable leaders and promote unelected local party officials to kingmakers.

And it would be driven by a narrow band of self-interested politicians. There was absolutely no public demand to make this change even at the state board level.

It’s another product of our un-representative representative government, the same one that twice upended citizen-approved initiatives last year with revisions that have been found to be either illegal or impractical. Someday we may be talking about an initiative process to take on the issues a partisan school board won’t.

It’s not like the Legislature hasn’t been willing to dictate to educators already. They talk local control, but they have passed bills to regulate everything from testing to gun policies.

We already have one partisan political body micromanaging our schools. That’s more than enough.