Keep politics out of our schools

“Politics are a curse in educational affairs, even if they contaminate only a member of some board of education, some superintendent, or some teacher,” said Karl Maeser, a noted early Mormon educator. “In all cases there is danger that the contagion will finally reach the school and the children, and spoil the work.”

Currently in Utah, candidates for state school board are reviewed by a Governor’s committee. The committee sends their recommendations to the Governor who then decides who will and who will not be on the ballot.

Recently, the U.S. District Court ruled that this way of selecting candidates violated constitutional rights of free speech by giving the governor and his committee “unfettered discretion” in advancing or excluding candidates.

The legislature was tasked with finding a solution and so far we’ve seen no fewer than six different bills presented.

With three weeks left to go, the only one to get any real traction is Senator Alvin Jackson’s SB104. His plan is to make both State and Local school board elections partisan. An amendment to his bill modified it so that only larger local boards–those with more than 50,000 in enrollment–would be partisan. That would include four districts: Davis, Alpine, Granite and Jordan.

Turning our school board elections into partisan battles is a universally bad idea.

First, its not what the people want. According to a recent Utah Policy poll, the majority of voters favor nonpartisan elections of State School Board representatives. Of those polled, 12 percent said they prefered them appointed by the Governor (the method that was just ruled unconstitutional), 27 percent preferred partisan elections and more than twice that, 56 percent, preferred nonpartisan elections.

Second, Senator Jackson’s own words should give anyone paying attention pause. He said, “What this legislation does is it allows the citizens and parents and those invested in the education of our young people to properly vet the candidates through our beloved caucus system.”

Our beloved caucus system? We are already in a heated battle over the caucus system. Count My Vote would have eliminated it completely but due to a compromise that is hanging by a thread, caucuses were preserved. That means that most of the school board candidates would be heading to convention.

And third, there is a very real possibility that making our school board elections partisan could land us right back where we started–in court. The Hatch Act is a law that prohibits employees of the federal government or federally funded agencies from running in partisan races. If we make board elections partisan we will be excluding a huge pool of people from the ability to run. Court battles are sure to follow.

Proponents like to say that partisan elections just make it easy because that system is already in place, but let’s remember that in every off-year election, nonpartisan municipal elections are held across the state. This is not a concern, it’s a red herring.

Schools are not the place for partisan politics. But unless voters across the state tell their legislators they want nonpartisan school board elections–that’s exactly the direction we’re headed.

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