The back-to-school season always carries a bittersweet flavor as the beginning of a fresh chapter in the education experience and the lamentable end to the pleasure of a long summer break. Likewise, this new school year brings reasons for optimism, as well as reasons for concern, when it comes to the state of public education in Utah.
First, the optimism. The State Office of Education reports that Utah high school seniors own the highest composite ACT scores among their peers in the 12 states that require the test of virtually all seniors. The test is administered in most states only to those students who are intending to enroll in college, and when those students are singled out, Utah’s scores are slightly below the national average.
Nevertheless, the numbers mark a significant achievement. The composite score of 20.8 in math, reading, English and science testing in Utah is up from 20.7 the previous year, a small increase but an indication of a positive trend.
On the side of concern is a not-so-positive trend in the conduct of the State Board of Education. Two respected education leaders — superintendent Martell Menlove and deputy superintendent Brenda Hales — submitted early resignations amid reports of conflict and disarray on the board. One board member has called for an investigation into whether the board violated state records laws by discussing important matters, including the appointment of an interim superintendent, behind closed doors. The complaint also suggests instances of misuse of power by fellow board members.
A divided board eventually voted 9-6 to formally appoint the interim superintendent, who was apparently singled out for the position in the closed-door meeting.
Conflicts on the board may be a symptom of the unusual way in which member are selected. Candidates are nominated by a committee that a 2003 law requires to include an equal number of representatives of “business” interests as representatives of the education establishment. The committee nominates three people for each board position and the governor selects two of them to run for the position during the general election.
When the law went into effect, the Deseret News published an editorial pointing out the practice is inherently undemocratic, awarding more power to the governor and a hand-picked nominating committee than to the general electorate. There are concerns the process has resulted in the selection of board members whose ideological views run counter to those of professional educators when it comes to matters such as curriculum design and the inclusion of charter schools and other alternatives in the overall mix of public education.
This is not to say that those views should not be represented on the board, but it is to say that it has been presumptuous of the Legislature for the last decade to believe the public is incapable of acting at the ballot box to select members who represent the full array of public interest in how schools should be run.
Regardless of whatever conflict may currently exist on the board, it is duty bound to adhere to the open-meeting laws. As a new school year begins, it is critical the board act with a commitment to openness and transparency as it oversees a system that is demonstrating, by virtue of recent ACT scores and other measurements, an ability to achieve significant progress in improving the quality of education in Utah.