Commentary: Utah’s board of education should be nonpartisan

No one wants to take the state of Utah to court on a constitutional issue, but a group of civic-minded individuals and public interest organizations including the State PTA have done just that. The issue? Should elections for the State Board of Education be partisan or non-partisan?

In 2016, the Utah Legislature passed SB78, which changed elections for the 15-member board of education from non-partisan to partisan elections. But in December, a district court issued a partial summary judgment and non-partisan elections for the board of education remain in effect. Now that ruling is being challenged by the state before the Utah Supreme Court, with a hearing set for Sept. 14 at 10 a.m. in the Matheson Courthouse.

Why should the public care? Simply put, the Legislature, our elected officials, should abide by the Utah Constitution. And board of education members should concentrate on educating the students.

The plaintiffs all contend that the Utah Constitution made us do it. The constitution states plainly that no partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission or attendance in the state’s education system. State board members receive a modest paycheck with all appropriate deductions as well as health coverage. State board members are both elected officials and employees of state government.

Here’s another sobering reality: If elections for State Board of Education are allowed to be partisan, you can be sure that within a few years there will be a legislative effort to make local board of education elections also partisan.

What does that mean for public education in Utah? It would introduce the divisiveness of political parties into public education. Partisanship does not inspire innovation, trust or efficiency. The worst-case example is the total dysfunction of Washington. Can we endanger our schools like that?

Our state and local school board members need laser focus on one thing: What helps children learn? Board members should not have to be accountable to political party officials for their adherence to party platforms. Elected education officials should not have to worry about how their votes, affecting children, will be interpreted by party loyalists who want their partisan elected officials to pledge loyalty to the party platforms.

What conflicts will board members elected through the partisan process have when it comes to educating the children of legal and illegal immigrants or LBGTQ students? For example, on immigration, the Republican platform opposes “illegal immigration and all forms of amnesty or legal status for illegal immigrants.” The Democratic platform states that “our shared humanity transcends age, race, religion, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, country of origin, immigration status, class or ability; it drives all we do.”

The goal of public schools should be to educate students, not indoctrinate them with political party preferences.

SB 78 was added to a state board of education fix-it bill during the last days of the 2016 session. It was a bad decision. It would make board of education members subject to the party caucus/convention system which lacks transparency, order and fairness and restricts access to voter information to the general public.

Boards of education are charged with the sacred duty to provide the best education possible for our students utilizing the finances they are allocated. Board members should not be involved in partisan bickering. Let’s hope the judgment of the district court is upheld by the Utah Supreme Court. The selection of our education officials is too important for partisan elections.

Sheryl Allen is a former legislator and a board member of the ABU Education Fund as well as Utahns for Public Schools. Both organizations are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

This article originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. Read it in its entirety here.

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