Public Education and the State Board

Anyone in the distance of my conservative voice for the past 15 years knows I want the federal government out of Utah’s education system. They also would know that I believe the Utah Constitution has a fundamental flaw regarding education. In Utah, education is the jointly held constitutional domain of the State Board of Education and the state Legislature – the former has “general control and supervision” of public education and the latter has power to fund and, hence, regulate it. This partnership is systemically dysfunctional and the ridiculous politics created by it have hampered Utah’s ability to address important student needs.

Recently, Governor Gary Herbert asked the State Board of Education to co-sign a letter to Congress calling on it to include state governors in the educational mix when it comes to defining and negotiating federal education funding. The State Board denied his request by a tie vote.

On the one side of the issue are Board members and others who feel as if the Utah Constitution is clear about control of public education – and who feel that Governor Herbert is sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. On the other side are the Governor and others who understand that public education needs all the help it can get. Both sides claim to promote state autonomy and local decision making in education – the State Board by defending its constitutional supremacy and Governor Herbert and other state leaders insisting that state autonomy is enhanced by broader public and political involvement.

As with federal health care mandates, federal funds to public education addressing some very expensive student needs require smart and conservative negotiation. The State Board isn’t going to give us that. The State Board, for as long as anyone can remember, seems to be in the business of doing just about anything the federal government wants states to do just to get more funding for funding’s sake. So it’s with great irony that Governor Herbert is accused by political opponents and citizen crusaders of an unnecessary and unconstitutional power grab.

One opponent claims the governor doesn’t understand federalism and, in the same article, proves he’s the one who knows little about federalism. Federalism, rightly understood, has to do with the constitutional relationship between the federal government and the states. Without a big legal or history lesson, all you need to know is that the relationship includes the federal government. Anti-federalists lost the debate in 1776. We have a federal government and we have to deal with it.

The right debate for Utah leaders to have is whether or not to accept federal dollars. The wrong debate to have is to accuse Governor Herbert or any other state leader of giving away state autonomy simply because our leaders must negotiate with the federal government after the state has chosen to take federal funds. Again, this is why libertarians and other ideologues can’t govern. They have every concept of abstract principle and no concept of practical reality.

If crazed citizens don’t want Governor Herbert or other rational state leaders negotiating Utah’s best interests against the federal government, please spend your time changing hearts and minds about the negative effects of accepting federal funding. Don’t hamper the very state leaders in a position to effectively negotiate Utah’s best interests.

Furthermore, spend your time amending and clarifying the Utah Constitution about control of public education. The current confusing language was imposed upon Utah at statehood as an anti-Mormon act. The federal government didn’t want control of education in the hands of the people of Utah. It wanted control in the hands of a small, strident clique of unaccountable “outsiders.” Our current constitutional language on public education was a punishment on Utah, not an inspired separation of powers.

Utah’s governor and state legislature are thoroughly vetted by voters in rough and tumble partisan races. The State School Board is elected in feigned nonpartisan races with little to no public interest – and the education establishment likes it that way. It has opposed every attempt to inject accountability into its elections.

In the matter of negotiating Utah’s best interests with the federal government, trust Governor Herbert and the state legislature – and beware the education establishment.

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