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.