Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Like we didn't see that coming!

It was clear that many members of the Utah Legislature were unhappy when a group of citizens filed a petition to overturn an unpopular voucher law last year.

They were even more unhappy when, against all odds, that citizens’ group collected more than enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

They were even MORE unhappy when the Utah Supreme Court halted their attempts to circumvent the referendum process and implement the program before a vote could be taken.

Can you imagine how unhappy they were when voters soundly defeated the proposal at the polls last November with a 62%-38% margin statewide and a majority in every county in the state?

Were they angry enough to teach voters a lesson?

Today’s Deseret News reports that legislative leaders would like to make it even more difficult to place a referendum on the ballot. If they make the process difficult enough, they may be able to prevent any more messy direct votes on important issues in the future.

Despite how unpleasant it is for the powers that be, the founders of our state recognized that a direct vote of the people can provide an important check on the power of the legislature and a reminder to politicians about who they are supposed to represent. That’s why the Utah State Constitution specifically provides for the referendum and initiative process, placing the legislative power jointly on the legislature and “the legal voters of Utah.” Legislators would do well to protect our constitutional rights rather than try to undermine them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Draper Days

My family and I spent time over the weekend celebrating Draper Days. As usual, the Draper Community Foundation did an excellent job planning and following through with this city festival. Although Draper has grown much over the past 10 or 20 years, the Draper Days festivities maintain the feel of a friendly, community event, complete with rodeo, parade, pancake breakfast, and 5K race. The park festival featured fun musical performances, free games for the kids, and fireworks. We had a great time and enjoyed running into acquaintances, old and new. A number of volunteers spent extensive hours on this project and, once again, pulled off a huge success.

We had a fun time watching the parade on Saturday morning, especially the part with our younger son and his karate class. He was a trooper walking in the hot sun, and he was very eager to demonstrate his skills. My one concern with the parade was that the Community Foundation’s rules allowed some candidates (incumbents) to participate while prohibiting others (challengers) from doing so. Since we’re all taxpayers and constituents, this rule doesn’t make much sense. I was assured that the “elected officials” in the parade were told in no uncertain terms that campaigning was not allowed. Many of the officials seemed to take that regulation seriously, but some did not. I guess it’s not surprising when a politician feels he is above the rules that everyone else must follow, but it can be a real disappointment for constituents who feel that lawmakers should play by the same rules as those they govern.

Waiting for the fireworks to start.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sandy Parade

Okay, so I know I’m a little late with this post about the 4th of July. Time sure flies…

Thanks to everyone who volunteered to help the campaign at the Sandy parade. We had a lot of fun and were grateful for the cloud cover and a few drops of rain. I hear that parades that took place earlier that day were more uncomfortable because of the heat.

The Sandy parade is a lot of fun for me because of the mix of people I see. In addition to current friends we often see around town, there are also friends from the old days—classmates from Jordan High and people from the neighborhood where I grew up. Our kids loved seeing their own school friends with their families in the crowd.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Change Is in the Air

In the wake of several astonishing upsets in Tuesday’s Republican primary, pundits are speculating about what the results mean for Utah’s political climate. As someone who follows state politics, I’ve been reading and listening to quite a lot of these commentaries. Though analysts’ views vary with respect to the specific issues in voters’ minds when they cast their ballots, there’s little disagreement about the overall message of the election:

Voters want change.

In two Republican legislative races north of Salt Lake (one in Davis County and one in Weber County), incumbents loyal to the current power brokers lost to moderates who better reflected the views of their communities. In the state treasurer’s race, the candidate with actual investment experience beat out the favorite of party bosses and legislative leaders. Although these results may seem like common sense, they represent a remarkable shift from previous years.

For months I’ve been saying that there’s something different in the air this year. Voters are tired of having a few powerful politicians trying to force their will on the citizens. In the past, such dissatisfaction may have led to increased complaining or perhaps apathy. People thought, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just one person.” However, after last year’s petition and voucher referendum, voters now realize the great power they hold. We don’t have to just accept what our legislators do. When enough of us get together and get involved we can do great things. Most of all, we can remind elected politicians that they work for us. If they don’t do the job correctly—if they don’t listen to the people they are supposed to represent—they can be replaced. Tuesday’s primary was a fresh reminder.

I’m looking forward to the general election season ahead of us. Two years ago I knocked on doors all over District 51 and talked to thousands of Draper and Sandy residents about their priorities for state government. Their input helped me better understand the role of a state representative. I’m excited by the energy I see in my supporters and volunteers and by their commitment to get rid of “politics as usual” in Utah.

If you’re ready for a change, if you’re ready for a representative who supports your values on the issues that matter most, let me be your voice. Join the Lisa Johnson for Legislature campaign today at http://www.electlisa.org/Volunteers.htm.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Primary Election Day

Today I went to the polls to cast my vote for school board in the “new” Jordan District. Recognizing what an important work this board will need to accomplish, and having watched the candidate selection process for the state school board, my hope is that we can seat a board without ulterior political motives. What we need is people with an honest desire to provide the children with the best possible learning experience and people who will create an atmosphere where the best teachers in the state will want to teach. I’m watching the returns as they come in online and hoping for a good future for my children and yours.

As a Democrat, I wasn’t able to vote in the primary election for state treasurer, but I’ve been watching that race with interest. As I’m sure you know, there have been allegations of unethical (and illegal) conduct in this race. Unfortunately, voters were not able learn the truth of the situation before they voted today because the lieutenant governor decided to wait until after the election to decide whether an investigation were warranted. I was very interested to find this document posted on Lt. Governor Herbert’s website at 8:00 tonight—as soon as the polls closed. For now, I’ll let you ponder what it means as we wait for the rest of the results. I’m sure it will be the topic of future conversations regarding ethics in our state.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Think the voucher fight is over? Think again!
June 6, 2008

If you’re like most people, you probably assume that elections for the state school board are run pretty much like other elections, minus the partisan element. Most Utahns aren’t aware of the complicated process by which state school board candidates are selected—and how easily that process can be manipulated by anti-public education activists. The events of this week are a strong reminder of the reasons that the citizens who oppose vouchers—62% of Utah voters—cannot let their guard down.

In most Utah elections, every candidate who files for office gets to present his or her case to voters, ask for their votes, and then “live or die,” so to speak, by the voice of the people. If more than two candidates file for a race (or more than one from a particular party, in the case of partisan races), the candidates must convince convention delegates and/or primary election voters to support their bids to appear on the general election ballot. The winners of those contests then campaign to voters at large for their votes in November.

But candidates for Utah State Board of Education (USBE) go through an entirely different process. If more than two candidates file in a particular district, the list is winnowed down in two stages in which voters have no representation at all. In the first stage, a committee of twelve people (appointed by the governor) evaluates the full list of candidates in all races and selects three or more in each district to pass on to the governor for further consideration. The governor then selects the two choices that voters see on November’s ballot.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably already identified the weaknesses in this system and the clear potential for manipulation. The appointed committee and the governor each have an opportunity to eliminate candidates who don’t support their political goals, making this “nonpartisan” process very political. But they wouldn’t do that, would they?

They would, and they have.

I’ll go over the highlights with you.

Late October, 2007: Governor Huntsman appoints the members of the State Board of Education Nominating and Recruiting Committee. In accordance with state law, the committee includes 6 representatives from business and industry, and 6 representatives from the education community. (See the list here.) The wild card is one of the “education” reps—the one who must be from the charter school movement. Where will his priorities be—with public schools, or with the business lobby?

March 7-17, 2008: Candidates file to run for office. For the 7 USBE seats up for election, a total of 37 file. Two things stand out about the filings: the number of people running for these offices is unusually large, and the lists contain many prominent voucher advocates.

May 2, 2008: The selection process begins with candidate interviews. Committee Chair, former legislator Jeff Alexander, tries to close the meeting to the press and public. Unfortunately for him, state statute prohibits closed meetings under these circumstances. Once the T.V. cameras show up, Alexander relents.

May 8-9, 2008: Interviews continue.

June 2, 2008: The committee meets to deliberate and make their recommendations. Though the committee’s PTA representative makes a motion to automatically forward the names of all incumbents, based on the principle that the voters should choose whether or not to retain their current elected representatives, the majority of the committee rejects this proposal. During the voting, each committee member selects the top three candidates in each district, assigning three points to the top choice, two points to the second choice, and one point to the third choice. The results clearly demonstrate 7-5 block voting, with the charter school representative voting with the business lobbyists to eliminate well-qualified, public school candidates. (Sarah Brate at the Accountability blog has posted the voting results here.) As a result, the current Chair of the State School Board, Richard Sadler, is eliminated, and several education-friendly candidates barely squeak through in third place. [In an interesting twist, incumbent Bill Colbert (a voucher supporter) is also eliminated. My suspicion is that it was because he voted to ask the governor to veto portions of the education “omnibus bill,” but that’s a topic for another time.] The committee forwards the names of the surviving candidates and their vote totals to Governor Huntsman.

June 6, 2008: Without interviewing or contacting any of the candidates, Governor Huntsman selects the top two point-getters in each category, ensuring that the business lobby’s choices are on the ballot. Incumbent Theresa Theurer—an outspoken voucher opponent—is eliminated from the ballot.

Results: Three of five incumbents who filed to run will have NO CHANCE to make their case to voters. In several areas, voters will be left with TWO PRO-VOUCHER choices—despite last year’s voucher defeat and the fact that there were qualified anti-voucher candidates who filed. Is this how the governor honors his promise to respect the vote of the people?

The situation raises several important questions. Why do we have this system in the first place? Who is responsible for taking the local voters out of the equation? After years of spending loads of money on legislative candidates, why are voucher proponents now focusing on school board races? What do they hope to accomplish? Will this situation play out in local school board races as well? With the Jordan school board elections coming up in just a couple of weeks, it seems important to ask the candidates about their views on privatizing education.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Investing in Kids Part 1

Yesterday, the Utah Foundation released a new report entitled “What Can $3,702 Buy: How Utah Compares in Education Spending and Services.” It’s a great read for anyone interested in the future of public education in Utah. (Okay, it is a bit long, so you might want to start with the Executive Summary.) Although most of us know that Utah’s per-pupil spending is the lowest in the nation, the new report looks at more than just the spending, revealing the true cost to our students. Utah Foundation President, Stephen Kroes, summed it up in an interview with the Deseret News:

"Having larger class sizes, lower-paid teachers, fewer librarians, larger school districts, and higher student-to-staff ratios in almost every category are indications of schools adapting to low resource levels. . . . But by merely getting by within these constraints, our schools do not appear to be poised for excellence."
In fact, a comparison between Utah and states with similar populations reveals that our low funding effort correlates with lower student performance. From the report:

Utah Foundation’s report “School Testing Results, 2006 & 2007” found that Utah is scoring well below what would be expected for a state with its demographic profile. Utah Foundation identified significantly lower spending levels as a possible contributing factor. Certainly below a specific threshold, spending could be an important constraint on student achievement. In addition, although most people agree that the primary objective of schooling is academic achievement, parents and the public also value other educational outcomes not measured by standardized tests (such as civic virtue, creativity, critical thinking or social skills) as well as certain institutional qualities of the education system (such as responsiveness to parents). These also might be detrimentally affected by Utah’s lower spending levels.
So, while lower spending is sometimes considered to be a sign of fiscal restraint, and can also reflect efficient management, we must be aware of the “specific threshold,” below which we short-change our students.

The new report provides great information, and I hope it will become the basis for many productive discussions on how we can improve the educational opportunities for all Utah’s students. I’ll be addressing some of the specifics in the report in the upcoming days and weeks. I hope you’ll join the discussion.