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Park City • When Utah lawmakers don't trust something, like the public education system, they start legislating, Shelly Teuscher said Wednesday.
Teuscher, a state school board candidate, said that impulse can lead to bills that are unproductive. But her experience in government relations gives her confidence that she can build trust on Capitol Hill.
"I have worked with the Legislature for over 30 years," Teuscher said. "I know them and know how to work with that system."
Her opponent, former teacher Carol Barlow-Lear, said lawmakers understandably expect control and accountability for the public money they spend on schools.
But the best thing the Legislature could do to help education, she said, would be to refrain from dumping evermore statutory changes on teachers and school administrators.
"I personally believe the State Board of Education should be the primary policymaker for public education," said Barlow-Lear, an attorney. "Fund the system, and just let us go for two years."
There are times, she said, when lawmakers and school board members disagree. But that tension can be healthy, generating discussion, compromise and collaboration.
"I'd rather have disagreement than stealth bills or stealth laws or stealth rules that create a bad situation," Barlow-Lear said.
Teuscher and Barlow-Lear are running for the District 7 seat on the Utah Board of Education, which includes Salt Lake City and Park City. Both candidates participated in a debate Wednesday evening at the Weilenmann School of Discovery, sponsored by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, Hinckley Institute of Politics, Sutherland Institute, United Way of Salt Lake and KSL.
It was the fourth in a series of eight debates for state school board candidates.
Wednesday's debate focused on teacher retention and teacher licensing, particularly in regards to the new Academic Pathway to Teaching program, or APT, which allows individuals with a bachelors degree but without formal teacher training to work in a classroom under the mentorship of a veteran educator.
APT is an improvement to other alternate licenses, Teuscher said, because candidates are required to know the subject they're teaching.
"Content knowledge, I think, is the single most important thing that can benefit our kids," Teuscher said. "We have to address the teacher shortage somehow, and I think alternative routes to licensing can be a part of that solution."
APT exists, Barlow-Lear said, so efforts should be made to refine it and mitigate concerns.
But rather than filling classrooms with untrained educators, she said, Utah should make it easier for retired teachers to work part time, or for teachers from outside the state or from outside the country to fill positions in Utah schools.
"I like that better than alternative routes, frankly, because those people have had training," Barlow-Lear said. "They have experience."
The candidates also were asked about school grading, a controversial program in which Utah schools receive a letter grade based on metrics like test scores and graduation rates.
Utah lawmakers voted this week to begin drafting amendments to the school-grading law, which, if approved, would be the sixth consecutive year of alterations since the law originally passed in 2011.
Potential changes include awarding points to schools for decreasing absenteeism, and for participation in honors and Advanced Placement programs.
Barlow-Lear described school grading as "an exercise in futility" while Teuscher said the program is "deeply flawed."
But Barlow-Lear said it would be better to keep the current school-grading system than push through yet another series of updates.
"I'm not a fan of changing it again, even if it's an improvement," Barlow-Lear said. "I think we've got to stick with what we have for a while."
Teuscher said lawmakers should continue updating school grades, as long as the state makes clear to the public that year-to-year comparisons are impossible.
"I'm not against the idea of change if it's an improvement," Teuscher said. "The current proposal is an improvement."
Both candidates spoke of the need for additional school funding, including stating their support for potential income-tax increases.
Barlow-Lear said that funding could be used to increase teacher salaries, to aid retention and recruiting efforts, and to reduce Utah's class sizes, which are among the largest in the nation.
"It is true it would take millions of dollars to reduce class sizes," Barlow-Lear said. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
Revenue sources, Teuscher said, should be looked at beyond tax increases, including a restructuring of district finances.
"I'd like to see less money going to administration and more going to teacher salaries," she said. "Administration is the support for teachers, and not the other way around."
School-administration costs in Utah are among the lowest in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The candidates also were asked about a recent school board policy proposal that would require the Utah High School Activities Association, or UHSAA, to abandon its transfer restrictions for student-athletes who switch schools.
Teuscher and Barlow-Lear expressed support for UHSAA maintaining its transfer rules.
"I think the current policy of the High School Athletics Association is the right one," Teuscher said. "I think we need to keep as many athletes as possible in the local schools."
Barlow-Lear said there is room for compromise between the school board and the association. But she added that designating Utah's athletic conferences is not the proper role for the state school board, a role the board's policy called for.
She also commended UHSAA representatives for their conciliatory response to the board's proposal.
"They came out the statesmen, I thought, in that particular exchange," Barlow-Lear said.
The next state school board debate will be held Thursday at American International School of Utah. That event will feature Janet Cannon and Richard Nelson, the candidates for District 8.