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Hurricane resident and state school board candidate Wesley Christiansen favors the elimination of the federal Department of Education.

But he stresses caution because Utah's challenges as the lowest-funded education system in the nation would be exacerbated without federal support for school lunch programs and special education.

"I'd like to cut those strings without turning it into a noose and hanging us," Christiansen said.

Similar in spirit but different in approach is his opponent, St. George resident Michelle Boulter, who supports rejection of the education funding Utah receives from Washington, D.C.

"Let's look at a new budget without the federal money, and let's see what we can do," Boulter said.

The District 15 candidates promoted those positions Tuesday evening during a school board debate at Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts in Ivins.

It was the first in a series of eight planned debates for the state school board election, sponsored by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, Sutherland Institute, Hinckley Institute of Politics, United Way of Salt Lake and KSL.

Throughout the evening, Boulter and Christiansen traded sound bites that differed in the details but reflected a similar frustration with the burdens of statewide testing, the limits of classroom technology and the need for school decisions to be made as close to the dining table as possible.

"Every student should be home-taught," Christiansen said. "But the fact of it is that's kind of a hard thing for some parents and some families."

The largest gap between the two candidates showed in response to an audience question about their qualifications and past experience in education.

While Christiansen has served on a number of education boards — including the Washington County School Board, Utah School Boards Association and the Dixie Applied Technology College board of directors — Boulter, a home-schooling parent, said her campaign for state school board was her "first exodus out of being a mom."

"I served my family," she said. "That's what I've done."

The candidates said the ideal form of testing are the classroom exams given by a teacher to his or her students. And they were skeptical that an major expansion of classroom technology would aid learning.

Boulter said the technology-driven, competency-based approach to education touted by some policymakers would create a school where educators are reduced to the role of facilitators.

"Our students already sit in front of a computer too much," Boulter said.

And Christiansen said teachers need to be empowered in their classrooms.

"If we get out of the teachers' way, things are going to be better," he said.

The final question for the debate, submitted by an audience member, asked the candidates what should be done to eliminate teacher tenure and shift educator pensions to 401(k) retirement accounts.

Utah's public education teachers do not have the option of a tenure track, and the retirement system for public employees was reformed in 2010 to shift workers away from defined benefits to a defined-contribution plan, similar to a 401(k).

The question gave the candidates pause. Christiansen suggested it was part of a national conversation on education but not a pressing concern in Utah. Boulter suggested that the audience member email her for a response after she had a chance to research the issue.

District 15 covers Washington and Iron Counties. The winner of that election will succeed board member Barbara Corry, who declined to seek re-election after being elected in 2012 and serving one term.

On Thursday, District 13 candidate Scott Neilson and incumbent board member Stan Lockhart will debate at 6:30 p.m. at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Provo.

Twitter: @bjaminwood