Today was the first meeting of the Education Task Force made up exclusively of legislators and created by SB169 during the 2013 General Session. The goals as outlined in the legislation include identification of long-term education policies, alignment of public and higher education in support of a successful education system for student achievement, long-term priorities for funding and budgeting, and setting standards to be economically competitive in the United States and throughout the world. During the session I wrote a post about this task force explaining its composition and discussing my concerns about the task force usurping the constitutional role of the elected Utah State Board of Education. I ended the post by asking “Do you think a task force comprised exclusively of legislators should be doing this or does it infringe on the constitutional role of the Utah State Board of Education?”
Today the process began with short opening remarks by Legislative leaders. Senate President Neiderhauser began by saying he has a long frustration in voting on education bills, which are the number one issue in our state and provide an educated workforce to attract business to our state. He feels there seems to be lots of confusion “out there” about education and that we need to work in a unified way. He said this task force is not a competitive venture with current efforts like the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission. Instead, the Legislature needs to discover ways to get to the goal of 66% of our population having postsecondary training and decide what our education system should look like in five or ten years to have an educated workforce. He reiterated that we need to focus on positive policy discussions because the bottom line is student outcomes. Niederhauser said he doesn't want to hear about self-interest in this discussion because we may have to break down some of those silos. According to him they are leaving everything on the table going forward and nothing is sacred when it comes to student outcomes - so if it means a change governance, then they will, if we need to change funding, then they will. He said that they want to hear from all who are interested and are looking forward to a robust discussion on education.
House Speaker Lockhart’s opening remarks began with the statement that we have a 19th century education system and need to look at governance. She said we tend to have a blame game in education and that’s a problem because we should all be on the same team. She would like to look at how to leverage technology and stated, "If I have any ideas that people don’t agree with, then prove me wrong." According to her, the President and her do not have an agenda for the end so they’re not trying to move this task force to a pre-determined end and reiterated that they want input from everyone so they can make good public policy.
The task force looked at some data presentations on student achievement, funding, and higher education and these are filled with data and charts for those interested in statistics. Prosperity 2020, sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, gave a presentation on the goal to have 66% of Utahns with postsecondary training; currently, 43% of Utahns hold certificates or degrees. Our percentage has improved but our competitive standing with other states has dropped so we have work to do. Prosperity 2020 is committed to seeing improvement on all levels because third grade students need to read on grade level in order to eventually lead to postsecondary training. There also needs to be an emphasis on retaining college-level students and designing our education system to fulfill the needs of the workforce. I am supportive of the goals of Prosperity 2020 and many of their legislative priorities, but this begs the question: does education exist simply to service the workforce? Food for thought.
Dr. Martell Menlove, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, reiterated on behalf of the Utah State Board of Education the importance of a statewide body of elected people with the constitutional responsibility of general control and supervision of public education in our state. Speaker Becky Lockhart challenged him by asking if the State School Board just wants everything to stay the same and he responded by repeating the terms from the Utah Constitution and then saying that the terms need to be defined. What does establishment & maintenance and general control & supervision mean? She countered with the example of Idaho that has one board that controls public and higher education both. I firmly believe that the outcome of this Task Force will be a recommendation to change the governance structure of K-12 education. I said this during the session and my view has not changed after this first meeting; indeed it’s been strengthened.
Dr. Tim Beagley from the State Charter School Board presented that a perfect system of education would have the leaders give schools benchmarks and standards, tell them how they will be assessed, hold them accountable and then get out of the way and let them do it. Speaker Lockhart agreed that it sounded like a perfect system. But I submit that it would require the Legislature to stop micromanaging public education and I’m not sure that’s realistically possible because legislators’ constituents clamor for them to make changes rather than lobbying their local school boards.
The next meeting of the Education Task Force will be on Wednesday, June 26 at the Capitol. Stay tuned.
Sue Carey, a Utah Mom and long time volunteer advocate for families and children at Utah's State Capitol, can also be found on Twitter @swcarey.