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Following a mandate from the Utah Legislature, the State Board of Education is still crafting a system to assign letter grades to Utah's schools. But Sen. Howard Stephenson has a plan for how to deal with the schools that earn F's privatize them.
At an Education Interim Committee meeting, Stephenson, a Draper Republican and co-chair of the committee, said he plans to run a bill in 2012 that would "dismantle" schools that earn failing grades. A bid would be put out to private contractors and parents would decide who would run their neighborhood school.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway challenged the notion that struggling schools ought to be punished and said there are schools with as few as 14 students in rural Utah where the chances that a private contractor would step in are "pretty remote."
"We have some challenging, challenging places where ,when a schools is underperforming, we need to be talking about assistance and support not how we can punish them," Shumway said. "I'm a little troubled as we talk about consequences all the time instead of talking about incentives or the assistance that some schools need."
Stephenson said he has a "different perspective."
"I believe that students who are attending schools that receive an 'F' are currently being punished. What I'm looking at is to stop punishing children through mediocre delivery of education," he said. "If it is viewed as punishing those in charge, so be it. I think children deserve to be saved from a failing school."
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed a law, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, that requires the state board to establish a school grading system with letter grades of A, B, C, D or F. The idea was inspired by Florida's system of grading schools, which former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shared with lawmakers when he visited Utah last year.
The grades will be based on students' proficiency and progress in language arts, math, science and writing and, in high schools, their graduation rates and measures of college and career readiness, such as ACT scores. Judy Park, associate superintendent of education, told the interim committee on Wednesday that her office is still working on how best to weigh the proportion of students meeting goals on state exams and students' improvement in scores over time.
The committee also discussed a plan by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, to amend the Utah Constitution to give the governor oversight of education in Utah. He made a similar proposal earlier this year and received the support of the Senate but it was not voted on in the House. The measure would require two-thirds approval by the Legislature and then approval by voters at the ballot box in November 2012.
Reid described the components of Utah's education system K-12, higher education and applied technology colleges as three "silos" that operate independently of the governor's control and compete with one another for funding at the Utah Legislature to the "overall detriment of education" in Utah.
As an example, Reid said higher-ed blames K-12 for not adequately preparing students for college while K-12 blames higher-ed for not producing teachers that are prepared for the challenges of the classroom.
Rankings of Utah's universities and K-12 system nationally show Utah education is "average at best," Reid said.
"All parties are blaming each other for the failures while no party is taking responsibility," he said. "In view of all this, we must ask ourselves: Who is in charge of education in the state of Utah? Who is responsible? And who is ultimately accountable?"
Two Republican committee members, Rep. Jim Nielson of Bountiful and Rep. LaVar Christensen of Draper, expressed concerns that moving authority for education to the Governor's Office would give too much power to the executive branch. Nielson noted the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that the State Board of Education, whose members are elected after the governor helps narrow the candidate field, serves under the direction of the Utah Legislature.
"I feel like that is shirking our duty and shrinking our responsibility and enhancing the governor's [authority]," Nielson said.
Stephenson said he supports Reid's proposal, but he would like to see the Legislature come up with a concrete plan for how the constitutional amendment would be applied in statute so voters could know what the change would look like before they go to the polls. Would there be a Department of Education with a governor-appointed education commissioner? A superintendent apiece for K-12, higher education and the Utah College of Applied Technology?
In its bid for statehood, Utah separated public education from the Governor's Office as a way to appease federal fears that a Mormon governor would run a system of Mormon schools, rather than a secular one, Reid said.
"We have created this really unusual aberration in the normal order of separation of powers between the executive, judicial and legislative branches," Stephenson said. "I think education would be brought up to a higher level of commitment for funding and excellence if the buck stopped with the governor. Right now, you can't find anyone who can tell you where the buck stops with education in this state because the responsibility is so diffused."