By Bob Bernick, UtahPolicy.com Contributing Editor
The elected State Board of Education needs to assert itself and take control of public education throughout Utah, or there may be a constitutional amendment that gives that ultimate power to the Legislature.
So believes Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who told UtahPolicy Tuesday that in his new position as Senate budget chairman over education funding he’ll “do all I can” to “kill some programs” in public education he doesn’t believe fulfill proper roles.
On the other side, he’ll fight to take $325 million in income tax monies away from Utah’s colleges and universities and give that cash to public education “where it really belongs.”
In a far-ranging interview, Buttars, who in the past has been a controversial conservative in the 29-member Senate, said he’s working on a 25-point, five-year plan to rescue Utah’s public schools from a number of ill-informed and misguided education programs and philosophies.
Some teachers and school districts (Utah has 41 districts) are teaching philosophies nothing short of “socialism and the United Nations” ways of the world, “certainly not Utah values” or what by far most Utahns want taught in their public schools, he said. He declined to name districts that may be so far off track, but said he would later as his education reform plans develop.
One idea, said Buttars: Make teachers take an oath to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions. “And if they violate that oath, they can leave. We have some teachers in left field.”
In broad terms, Buttars wants accountability up and down the education spectrum. He wants to curb “special interests” that have “taken over some of these school districts.”
“I’m going to try to kill some of these (education) programs” through the budget process. “And that likely won’t sit well” with some in the educational community “who may go nuts” over losing that money. But it must be done, he says, to regain control of a system that has run amok.
Buttars said he’s still developing his five-year plan, but will have it solidified when budget subcommittees start meeting later this month in preparation of the start of the 2011 Legislature on Jan. 24.
He won’t be able to get it all done by the time his term runs out in 2012. And Buttars, 68, said he won’t seek re-election then to his District 10 seat. “Twelve years is enough.”
He underwent open-heart surgery last summer. “That went well and I’m back,” even though he was seriously ill for several months afterwards. He says he’s ready for the new general session, “excited about what we must do” to help public education in Utah.
Martell Menlove, deputy state superintendent, met with Buttars, Superintendent Larry Shumway and several board members for three hours Monday.
Buttars said he left the meeting “feeling really good” about how his ideas were received. “I don’t want to run” the constitutional amendment, already drafted, that would give the Legislature ultimately public education control. “But I will if we don’t get the reform we need.”
Menlove said he couldn’t comment on Buttars’ constitutional amendment, which, while keeping the elected state board, would put board members under legislative statute authority. The board now has a great deal of independence in deciding how school children will be taught.
Menlove said that Shumway and board members are concerned about public education governance and funding, and will work with anyone, including Buttars, who can help in those areas.
Utah made a big mistake in 1996 when the state constitution was changed to allow business and personal income tax monies to be spent on higher education, said Buttars. Colleges and universities have all kinds of outside money sources that public education doesn’t have, like grants and tuition.
“I have a report that shows our tuition is third lowest among Rocky Mountain States,” he said.
Public education schoolteachers do need better pay, he said. But one audit he’s seen shows that while Utah is, on average, $9,000 below other Rocky Mountain states in teacher pay, it is $9,000 above for administrator pay.
“Good teachers, who love the classroom and want to stay in it, have to go into administration because of the money,” said Buttars. He’ll propose “something like a master teacher, who can stay in the classroom but make administrator pay, or more,” since classroom teaching is so important.
He said he’s met privately with three retired Jordan School District teachers and heard the same thing from each: They left early even though they loved their jobs because they were “teaching to a test” and not helping students as they knew they could and should, and they lacked support from administrators, especially in student disciplinary matters.
“We need to be able to discipline students and teachers” in order to regain control of public education, said Buttars. Utah’s education code has been amended so many times in recent years that “well-intended but misguided” legislators mucked it up. “A lot of it should just be repealed, and I’m looking to do that, as well.”
Buttars admits that if he doesn’t have the backing of his GOP Senate caucus, especially in budget matters, he can’t succeed. But he believes he can get it. “Every one I’ve talked to – give me an hour – and they agree with me,” he said.
With all the needs in public education today, “it’s shameful” that GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2011-2012 recommended budget takes $325 million in income tax revenues and gives it to colleges and universities. “I’ll stop it if I can,” he said.
But just more money is not the answer, serious and deep reform of public education is, he added.
“There are special interest groups out there who have funded” both legislators and school district candidates “and taken control” of local districts, Buttars said. He declined to name any, but said he would later as part of his overall five-year presentations.
Buttars has butted political heads before with the Utah Education Association, the main teacher union in the state.
He declined to name school districts, or local boards, that he believes have given in to “special interest pressure” – but will do so later, he said.
Last Legislature Buttars decided not to push his plan to allow students to skip the 12th grade if they are proceeding ahead in their studies. He says that will be part of his five-year plan, with some additions.
For example, in the 7th or 8th grades, parents and students will together have counseling sessions that point out “where the jobs are” and “what college or technical degrees” will lead to good jobs.
Why, he asks, are Utah colleges graduating so many “people in social studies and the humanities” when there are no jobs for them? Scarce financial resources, by the state and the students, must be better managed, he added. “The (higher education) choices would still be up to them” – parents and students – “but they need to know” what lies ahead.
“How far out of control has this gotten? One example, several years ago we gave something like $40 million to buy new history books. We couldn’t even get a third of the districts to report how they spent it, and when they finally did, some of them spent theirs on something else, not history books,” said Buttars.
“We need reform. We need only two tests for students each year. With (his five-year plan) we can begin to fly in education. Other states are doing it. We can, too.”