Remember: Debate season includes state school board race

Written by Christine Cooke

October 9, 2020

It’s election season, which means it is time for debates. The past two weeks we’ve seen candidates square off at all levels – presidential, gubernatorial, and vice presidential.

But did you know about the debates for the Utah State Board of Education?

Members of the state board play a crucial role in shaping Utah’s public education system. They create state standards, choose statewide assessments, set graduation requirements, and oversee teacher licensing. 

For a quick rundown of what the candidates are saying about today’s education issues, take a look below and watch the full debates for District 12, District 11, and District 3.

Need to find out which district you’re in? Take a look at this tool here to learn more.

District 12

Jim Moss and Becky Taylor debated each other on Sept. 30 to compete for the opportunity to represent District 12, which includes schools in Orem, Wasatch County, and the Uinta Basin.

Testing opt-outs

When it comes to testing opt-outs and how to approach accountability in schools, Moss noted common concerns about federal imposition and data privacy. He said schools need greater flexibility in types of assessments and that the state ought to continue seeking waivers. Taylor said there should be no opting out, but also said that students who have panic attacks or different learning styles should be offered different ways of assessment by their educators. 

Teacher licensing

In response to a question about the board’s role in teacher licensing, Taylor read a response from one of her potential constituents, which said that we ought to give licensing power to local districts and that we need to keep the state out of it. Moss said we need to free up schools and districts to make decisions about whom to hire and that the board should offer only a basic requirement. He noted that this could smooth the process for those who are coming into teaching from other professions.

Approach to writing, implementing and enforcing rules

When asked how they as individual board members would approach the task of writing, implementing and enforcing rules, Moss noted his 20 years in law practice, highlighting the need for tenacity to dig through the rules, and also said he would seek to weed out regulations that inhibit innovation. Taylor said she tends to err on the side of creative thinking, saying the fewer rules the better. She said we need to turn the power back to educators who are the true experts in their field. 

District 11

Tony Zani and Natalie Cline debated education issues on Oct. 6 in order to win over the residents in District 11, which covers schools in southwest Salt Lake County. 

Teacher shortage

When asked how the state should address the teacher shortage, Zani said that we need to focus on better working conditions, including smaller class sizes, eliminating the testing culture, and doing a better job of honoring teachers, for example, when they get nationally board-certified. Cline said we need to stop changing standards, remove unnecessary programs, reduce reports they need to fill out, and give teachers more autonomy so they can free their creative genius.

Modernizing education

To a question about how to modernize education in a technology-focused world, Cline said technology should not be the focus of education. She said that the past six months have shown that online learning has been a nightmare for most teachers and families. She also discussed technology’s link to increases in isolation, addiction, depression and other problems. Zani said that technology is not a panacea and that he is wary of the latest fads and software in education. He believes technology can enhance what teachers are already doing.

Anti-racism curriculum

When asked how they would respond to recommendations for anti-racism content to be implemented in state standards, Cline said that racism should be eliminated, but that the emphasis on critical race theory does not solve racism. Zani said board members who are being recommended certain works need to read the material and decide whether it’s appropriate, helpful or harmful. He stressed putting aside preconceived notions and said he believes we can have anti-racist training, be patriotic, and not tear anyone down.

District 3

On Oct. 8, Matt Hymas and Brett Garner debated one another about Utah education policy in order to win over voters in District 3, which includes West Valley City and Tooele County schools.

Primary driver of education policy

In response to a question about who or what entities ought to be the primary drivers of education policy, Garner said parents, teachers and administrators should be. He said much of education policy has been driven by the federal government and billionaires, but those reforms have mostly not worked, with the result of driving teachers from the classrooms and frustrating parents. Hymas said the primary drivers ought to be parents and that he believes in a bottom-up approach. From there, the board, Legislature and governor’s office can work together to find solutions.

Partisan elections for the school board

When asked about the change to partisan elections and why they chose their affiliation, Hymas said he does not mind partisan elections for the state school board, saying it gives voters a general idea of an individual’s values. In contrast, Garner said he does not believe that the school board race should be partisan, and that he chose the Democratic Party for this race because the party has consistently put public education as the number one priority.

School choice

Garner said he believes in the right of parents to send their child to a school that meets their needs, but that the state board should focus on making neighborhood schools the best they can be. He said he opposes vouchers and tuition tax credits. Hymas said he loves school choice. He works at a charter school and has kids in both charter and traditional public schools. 

About the Utah Education Debate Coalition

These debates were hosted by the Utah Education Debate Coalition, made up of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Sutherland Institute, United Way of Utah, and the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. The Utah Education Debate Coalition is a partnership created out of the commitment to advancing education in the state. Our mission is to create a better-informed community through raising awareness of the importance of State Board of Education candidates and races.

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