Utah Board of Education: For Non-Partisan Elections #

I must be on a few Utah email lists still. Kim Burningham emailed me this afternoon regarding a potential bill (as yet, unnumbered) in the Utah Legislature regarding the selection of Board of Education members in Utah.

Kim’s email offered an opportunity to explore the rationale behind my position, to wit, open general elections are preferable both to the current system and partisan seats. Although I’m no longer a Utah resident, perhaps my experience on the Utah State Board of Education lends some weight to my argument. In short, I agree with Kim’s statement:

The education of Utah’s children is best served by a non-partisan direct election of school boards by the people.Email from Kim Burningham, received 20 Jan 2011

There are two issues at play here—first, the primary bill which would reportedly change elections of state school board members to be consistent with the election of local school board members, that is, via an open general election, and second, a purported movement by some legislators to amend the not-yet-a-bill to make both state and local board partisan offices. I support the first, and oppose the second.

I believe there are many negative consequences of partisan boards, not the least of which are greater polarization and the reduced weight of public voice. The only benefit of party affiliation is a perhaps slightly higher profile race, and I’m not convinced it out-weighs the costs.

Divisive artificial boundaries

Members of a partisan board join with pre-attached labels. For better or worse, we all use labels; they are part of our mental heuristics to make tasks easier and safer. If you harken back to high school, you remember the jocks, yuppies, nerds, thespians, partiers, drunks, punks, stoners, goths and bangers. (I didn’t grow up in Utah, so we didn’t have cowboys.) Perhaps your school had different names, but they were all there. Social groups were (and are) largely defined by labels, with unfortunately little cross-pollination. Each of us associates with such cliques by default. Exclusivity feeds our self-image. We identify with ethnic groups, interest groups (in the hobby/pastime sense, not just the political sense), religious groups, or even our departments at work, and evaluate our own worth by the success of the group and its members, even if that success is detrimental to a larger society.

Unfortunately, the downside of group membership is the tendency to distrust out-group members. It’s telling that so many in politics consider working “across the aisle” as a mark of distinction rather than a minimal standard of expected behavior. (And equally telling that others view unwillingness to compromise with similar distinction.) This behavior is not confined to politicians. Visiting the comment pages of political news sites brings up a host of comments overlooking individual differences, side-stepping civility and decrying “Rethuglicans” or “Democraps.” Intended or not, simply the presence of party labels will seed disunity and dysfunction in a state or local board, making it a less effective servant of the public.

Polarization and extremes

It is the nature of groups to be polarizing in their mindset. (“You’re either for us or against us.”) Consider presidential politics. Karl Rove demonstrated how effective polarization and vilification are as political tools. Candidates from both sides pander to the extreme wings of their respective parties in the primary and swerve toward the middle in the general election to capture moderate swing voters. Ultra-conservative tea-party candidates largely won in the most recent House elections in strongly Republican districts, as moderate candidates were ousted during primaries. On the Democratic side, recall how Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) was beaten by the liberal wing of his party, but went on to win re-election after filing as an independent and capturing moderate voices. The introduction of partisanship on the State Board of Education would lead to an increased number of extreme voices on the board. Perhaps you are one who believes those extremes would pull the board more in line with your thinking; I am not. Such polarization would distract the board from its duty to deliver quality education for the children of Utah by focusing too much time on tangential matters related to party ideology.

Additional stakeholders

Introducing partisanship adds additional stakeholders to the election process at the expense of the citizen voter. Neighborhood delegates and (dare I say it?) automatic delegates (who, because board district boundaries do not align with legislative boundaries were not necessarily elected solely by citizens in the area they vote in) have a strengthened voice and must be courted and appeased. Legislators, the most senior of which have a great deal of influence in party politics, will have greater input into the selection of board members.

It will not occur in every district. It will not occur all of the time. But it will occur. The best guard against the possibility of influence peddling, deal-making, or vindictive politics is by distributing as much influence as possible directly to voters through open general non-partisan elections.

Further, PACs and special interests will have greater influence on candidates in a partisan system, as they often contribute directly to parties, and candidates receive some of these funds through the party. Increased dollars in education races may be laudable in that it raises the profile of education races, but not if the primary sources are out of district interests seeking to influence single issues. Non-partisan elections makes a PAC’s direct-to-candidate donations more transparent, and single-issue candidates typically find work with the board of education has a much broader scope than they ever anticipated.

Fewer stakeholders

Compounding the effects of centralizing the public voice to a few delegates, in a partisan system candidates are socially and politically faced with less obligation to members of the opposing party. In fact, lesser treatment of-out group members typically increases credibility with the in-group. To be most effective, school board members should be expected to represent the interest or all citizens; this is easiest when there are no incentives (or diminished repercussions) to partiality.

Useless labels

Whether or not you’re in favor of a two-party system, you must agree the labels “Democrat” and “Republican” allow for general assumptions on a slew of issues ranging from abortion and gun control to health care and global warming. You might associate Republicans with the “choice” movement, but “choice” means different things to different people (as opposing groups have sought to redefine it for their benefit), and the citizens heavily Republican Utah voted against the implementation of a voucher law passed by their elected representatives. Other than the plank in the Utah Republican party platform (2009) asserting the right of parents to choose “to choose public, private, or home education” (has this ever been in doubt?) and encouraging “initiatives to help all Utahans become literate in English,” there is little to guide a discerning voter. (To be fair, the county platforms, e.x., R-Utah County, can be more rigid.) The Utah Democratic Party Platform (2009) is similarly warm and fuzzy, calling for “rational education reform based on quality research,” a position both broad and reasonable enough to be unarguable but with a multitude of meanings depending on the listener. (There is, however, a dig at Republicans for Utah being perpetually lowest in per-pupil funding). Further, as the platforms are general guides and elected members are not bound to adhere to their all of their tenets (for example, you’ll likely admit our most recent Republican president did not march behind the banner of limited government), even the most local platforms might not be applicable to a candidate’s education views. Thus, what I see as a primary purpose of the party system—to collect like-minded individuals on a broad range of issues—becomes a less-effective label in the limited context of education.

Consider, for example, Utah’s education special interest groups. In other arenas, such groups often bind tightly to a particular party. While that may be true of PCE, such groups as the PTA, Utahns for Public Schools, and the Utah School Boards Association are decidedly non-partisan. Even the UEA is composed of members of both parties (although some Republicans might argue it’s dominated by Democrats). In short, party labels for board members are ineffective in providing voters with the same level of insight as compared with more general offices.

Perspectives from other states

Lastly, as a member of the Utah State Board of Education, it was my privilege to participate in national study groups and advocacy as part of the National Associate of State Boards of Education (NASBE). Members from most states are a part. As governance and authority differs from state to state, a common topic of water-cooler conversation is the composition of boards. To a person, every individual I met from a partisan board (appointed and elected) said it increased divisiveness and back-room scheming, and they pined for non-partisan offices.

Candidate/commitee stacking

Clearly there is agreement that the current Utah system is inadequate and prone to manipulation. Each of the last several elections has seen one side or the accuse the opposition of manipulation by stuffing the candidate list and/or the nominating committee. Those fights (and the system that engenders them) are unproductive—and I say this as a past beneficiary of the committee selection system.


Utahns deserve boards of education unencumbered by the machinations of political parties. A recent political poll by Dan Jones (although admittedly sponsored by someone against partisan board offices) demonstrated unequivocally that Utahns oppose making either state or local boards of education partisan. (DesNews) Partisan bills have failed in the past (2007, SB194S02) despite a multitude of sponsors in the senate, but legislation for direct election has been unsuccessful too (2009, HB150S01, although this bill also had an unaccepted public substitute requiring partisan elections). Clearly the issue is on the minds of legislators. I hope they make the best choice for Utah.

Education, Utah Politics

11 Responses

  • Tom. It is so good to hear from you once again. I have wondered how you are doing. I value our pleasant association those years here. I hope that all is going well with you. You are a good friend, and I would rather not lose track of you.

    Your analysis was superior!


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by UTPS, Natalie Gordon. Natalie Gordon said: Excellent analysis by former USBE member Tom Gregory: Utah Board of Education: For Non-Partisan Elections http://bit.ly/gaQoC3 #utpol #uted […]

  • You quoted: “The education of Utah’s children is best served by a non-partisan direct election of school boards by the people.”

    If that were true then the education of Utah’s children would be “best served” today. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The current approach is designed to best protect the status quo of mediocrity, rather than educational excellence.

  • John,

    I always value your insight and thoughtfulness, but I disagree with your conclusion. Although the final election is direct, the narrowing of the candidate field by committee in lieu of a primary does not, I feel, fully qualify as “direct election.”

    I’d like the current system to change; I just don’t believe partisan offices are the best solution.

  • Local school boards are all non-partisan, completely open to all, and only narrowed via an open primary process. Local school boards are typically the front line of resistance to change and union protection.

  • In their current form, which would you consider more open to change (whether you agree or not), local boards or the state board?

    While there is certainly some resistance by local board members (and there is aways resistance to change by anyone affected), I’m of the opinion that a great deal of resistance by local boards stemmed (in my experience) from local superintendents, who provide a great deal of guidance and professional expertise. This is consistent with how I understand your argument, as superintendents’ current/past relationship with unions may be behind some of your frustration.

  • From my experience? Generally neither.

    Some have compared local boards to mushrooms — they are kept in the dark and fed garbage.

    The state board is not design to have meaningful day-to-day control (nor is the legislature) nor can it (even if it wanted). The state board is controlled by the state office and the momentum to preserve the status quo.

  • By the way, we essentially have a 19th century governance model that is incapable of effectively addressing the 21st century educational needs of Utah’s children.

  • Okay—so to rephrase, you’re asserting the primary obstacle to change is USOE staff? What then is your position on state board elections, and how does it solve the problem you’re referring to?

    I was able to witness several positive changes initiated (or supported) by the school board during my term, although admittedly all had support from the full-time staff and they were implemented at the speed of government. (e.x., Raising HS graduation standards—to some opposition by local districts—along with all-day-K, more efficient student tracking and counseling support intended to improve graduation rates.) So, change happens. It’s just not always swift or monumental.

    Regarding mushrooms: I’ve said the same thing (privately) about some city council members and the occasional legislator too. It’s not terribly helpful in a public discussion, however.

    Back to the point, you seem to disagree with my conclusion, in favor of a partisan option, is that correct? Why do you believe it better than a non-partisan solution? Or is this entire discussion irrelevant because you think neither option will pass?

    Also, regarding your “governance model” statement: By similar reasoning, we have a 18th century governance model in the legislature incapable of effectively funding the 21st century educational needs of Utah’s children. It brings to mind the line attributed to Winston Churchill, that the forms of government we have in place are the worst, except for everything else that’s been tried.

  • The USOE is one obstacle, not the primary obstacle. There are obstacles everywhere along the way. I continue to support the complete elimination of the state board as an archaic relic which provides no meaningful educational benefit. The legislature is also largely incapable of providing meaningful control and accountability.

    Whether the elections are partisan or non-partisan, I don’t see it resulting in significant improvements for student achievement (ie it won’t make any difference).

    By the way, per the constitution, the legislature isn’t responsible for funding public ed. Rather it is responsible for “provid[ing] for the establishment and maintenance of the state’s education systems”.

    Market forces would provide a more beneficial governance model for education than attempts are government control and central planning. Of course, the establishment can’t trust parents and students since bureaucrats (aka “the professions”) know best.

  • Your proposal would require a great deal of momentum, as it would involve significant changes to the state constitution. It seems we disagree on other constitutional interpretations as well. I believe a strong argument could be made that the term “maintenance” refers in large part to funding.

    For example, see Article X § 5, which refers to the legislature’s duty re the Uniform School Fund and the State School fund as support and maintenance. Also reference Article XIII, § 5 (5) which instructs the legislature to spend income tax revenues on public and higher education.

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