Gubernatorial Appointment Cloaked in Elections

I’ve always known the system was rigged against Utah public school students receiving a thorough and evidence based education, but I had no idea just how broken the structure truly is.  In Utah, while individual school districts have local controls, statewide direction is ultimately up to an elected Board of Education.

The trouble is, while the board members are technically elected, the process by which individuals end up on the ballot is anything but a fair democratic representation of the will of the people.  The first step is a committee, whose members are appointed by the governor.  Their job is to nominate and review individuals to produce three recommendations out of a pool of candidates.  The committee passes on those recommendations to the governor who selects which two will appear on the ballot for Utah voters.  Anyone else see the problem here?

Last year there was a bill passed by the Utah Senate to make school board elections partisan and eliminate the recruitment and nomination committee.  It (as well as a number of other proposed changes to board election law) failed.

The commitee has on multiple occasions removed an incumbent board member from the list submitted to the governor based on their opposition to the governor’s public policies.  From the Salt Lake Tribune, we learn that two incumbent board members have filed suit alleging that the nomination process is violates the United States Constitution.

Utah’s controversial way of picking candidates for the state school board has landed the state and its attorney general in court — again.

And yes, this is not the first lawsuit, more on that in a minute.

Incumbent Carol Murphy was elected by Park City area voters four years ago, but rejected in her re-election bid by the Committee for the Recruitment and Nomination of Members of the Utah State Board of Education last April. She is joined by plaintiffs Carmen Snow, who was rejected as a candidate for the seat representing Washington County, and Stacey McGinnis, who wanted to vote for Snow.

The suit alleges the women were rejected, in violation of their First Amendment rights, because they are advocates of public education rather than what it calls “privatization” of schools via school vouchers and other mechanisms.

According to Utah law, the committee, appointed every two years by the governor, scrutinizes those who want to run for the board and submits to the governor the names of three final candidates for every open seat. The governor then picks the two candidates whose names will appear on the November ballot in state school board districts statewide.

The suit contends the system politicizes the school board. It alleges that the committee is heavily weighted with business interests and lobbyists who favor privatizing education and rejects candidates who don’t pass a conservative litmus test.

“For example, the questionnaire required candidates to state their support or opposition to Utah Core Curriculum Standards and the teaching of sex education in public schools, two highly contentious issues, both of which have been driven by ultra-conservative factions of Utah’s Republican Party,” it said. [Emphasis added]

The Utah Education Association opposes the current near-appointment system, saying that because the decision is “contingent upon the approval of the Governor [it] takes away the voice of the people in the electoral process.”  Moreover, they support keeping the races non-partisan, but making reforms.  The UEA states that removing the governor’s conflict riddled control over the process would “increase accountability to voters and better involve the community in the electoral process” and “allow for implementation of good policy, free from party platforms.”

Some, including Third District Court Judge Anthony Quinn have argued that since the eventual nominees are elected, that there is no issue to be concerned with.  When ruling against ousted member Denis Morill two years ago, Quinn wrote the process is legitimate because the recommendations “are neither binding nor unilateral, since the ultimate decision as to who is elected … is determined by the outcome of a general election by the public.”  Nevermind that the system is gamed from the outset to give voters only the choice the governor’s appointed committee and governor himself choose to give us.

Others will say that because the races are all non-partisan, and we all support our children’s education, we needn’t be bothered too much about a conflict of interest or lack of democratic process in representing the wishes of Utah citizens.  On the contrary, while education policy has always had elements of partisan politics, it is especially politicized in an era of a Republican party that increasingly supports libertarian ideas that government should be out of education, that voucher systems should be allowed to drain public schools of resources, and that hostility to science should be fostered so as not to threaten the religious indoctrination of children.

This shouldn’t be difficult.  It’s obvious that deciding education policy is already a politicized issue; all you have to do is look at how vigorously people dissent about substantive issues for public schooling.  What we have to do now is make sure that the party in control (and in Utah, that party will be the Republican party for a very, very long time) can’t keep a stranglehold on the process without any input from the people they were elected to serve.

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