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Partisan politics in school board of education elections
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Board of education members may start running as Democrats and Republicans

Partisan politics could come to our school boards if a judge rules the bill, already approved by lawmakers, constitutional. (Photo: Jeffrey Allred / KSL News)

Do politics have any place in education?

That’s a question that heated up the Utah House of Representatives Thursday night during the last day of the 2019 legislative session, as they debated a bill that could let board of education candidates run as Republicans and Democrats.

The bill at the center of argument had actually already been passed back in 2016; currently, it’s languishing in a appeals court, trying to fight a 3rd District judge’s ruling that it is unconstitutional.

That three-year-old argument fired back up again Thursday night, however, when Rep. Bradley Last pushed through a minor bill clarifying some of the language of the bill, bringing back a wave of old frustrations about how this bill, if accepted as constitutional, could affect our education system.

Why should the board of education be partisan?

The bill read in the House last night simply clarified the language on the old bill, making it explicit that, while Board of Education candidates would be allowed to run with a political party, it wouldn’t be mandatory.

Nobody voiced any objection to that idea, in and of itself. Still, the mere discussion of bringing partisan politics into Utah’s education system incised lawmakers enough that, in short time, the debate shifted away from the bill actually on the floor and instead focused solely on that old bill that was already passed in 2016.

Supporters say they want to bring political parties into the board of education because it’ll help make their board of education members more familiar faces.

“The people who elected you know who you are,” Rep. Francis Gibson said. “Just think right now, in your head: name your state school board member who represents you. If you don’t know, that’s the problem.”

Allowing board of education candidates to run as members of the Republican or Democratic parties, supporters argue, would let political parties campaign on their behalf and make sure more people knew who they were.

It would also let political parties vet candidates and ensure that they’re up to the job, argued Rep. Brady Brammer.

“Nobody knows who these candidates are,” he told the House. “they’re not going through our caucus system, they’re not going through any system, and they’re not getting questioned by anyone.”

The argument against

Those arguments, however, are almost the exact reason the other side of the aisle opposes the bill.

If political parties have a say in whether a board of education member has a chance of getting elected, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss argued, the people in charge of Utah’s Board of Education might be subject to a litmus test demanding that they tow to the party line.

With the Republican party campaigning on their behalf, as well, she suggested it would be highly likely that most of Utah’s Board of Education would end up being Republicans.

“I can’t quite figure out why the majority party would want to make sure they were all Republican, and even why it should matter,” she said.

Rep. Lawanna Shurtliff threw her voice against the bill as well. She mocked Gibson’s statement that the people who’d voted lawmakers into power knew who their representatives are. If he actually asked his constituents if they knew who he was, she quipped: “I doubt they could tell you.”

She also criticized Brammer’s suggestion that letting political parties vet out “oddball” candidates, saying: “How many of us knew what we were doing when we started?”

Ultimately, the opposition argued, politics and education just don’t make good bedfellows.

“I taught school for about 20 years … and, until I ran for office, if you had asked any of my students what political party I was, they would not know,” Rep. Marie Poulson told the House. “This kind of issue is something that ought to be completely remote . . . from our public school system.”

In Utah’s schools, she quipped: “I don’t see on our schedules Republican Math or Democrat Math.”

“This is not the right direction for public education” Moss agreed. “We should be focusing on policies that we all agree are best for kids, not partisan politics.”

The bill on the floor on Thursday, which simply clarified language in the bill already passed, was narrowly approved by the House, winning with a single vote.

The ultimate decision, however, will be the judges in our appeals courts, who still have to rule whether the idea is constitutional.