What is the best form of governance for public education? Part 1

This is the first in a two-part series on public education governance by Utah State Board of Education member Dave Thomas, who represents District 4. Mr. Thomas is a former Utah State Senator and former Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Education. 

Elected State School Board v. Governor-appointed State School Board  

Dave Thomas, Utah State Board of Education District 4.

During this last legislative session, the State Board of Education appeared to be under attack from all sides. Various legislative proposals were introduced with the intent of eliminating the duly elected State Board of Education and replacing it with a Governor-appointed body. One of the leading reasons behind these proposals appears to be a belief that Governor-led public education governance models were better than State Board-led public education governance models in improving student achievement and reforming public education.  While this rationale is appealing, it is fatally flawed.   

The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) has identified a total of four public education governance models. The governance structure that Utah falls within is Model II, while the governance structure suggested by these legislative proposals is Model IV.   

Below, I have provided a table which compares Utah and its current elected State School Board model against the states which utilize Model IV in the following areas:  ACT/SAT scores, graduation rates, graduation requirements, AP passage rates, charter schools, public education climate for growing businesses, and closing the achievement gap.  In comparing Utah to the Model IV average scores in each of the subject categories, what I discovered was remarkable.  Utah outperformed the Governor’s Model IV average in all categories.  In fact, what you find is that Utah is consistently in the top 25 percent of all states in public education.   

* This is an updated graph posted 6/8/2011, using the Official State Departments of Education Graduation Rates instead of the Education Week graduation rates.



* UPDATE: This is a new chart posted 6/28/2011

This is a vastly different conclusion than the analyses that have been touted in the news media and by various special interest organizations, such as the Utah Foundation and Education Week. According to those organizations, Utah is in the bottom 25 percent. Why the difference? When investigating these other ranking systems what comes to the forefront is not whether Utah school children are performing well, but rather a political agenda to push some specific program.   

* UPDATE: This is a new chart posted 6/28/2011

For example, Education Week downgraded Utah’s ranking on their Quality Counts report because of the low per pupil spending and high class sizes. Education Week’s theory is that states with high per pupil spending and low class sizes perform better than those with the opposite. Let’s test that theory. The state with the highest per pupil spending is New Jersey. It also happens to be one of the Model IV states.  Notwithstanding its spending, New Jersey ranks in the middle of the states in student achievement and nearly last in closing the achievement gap. To its credit, it has the highest graduation rate in the country. However, according to Education Week, New Jersey should be at the top in all categories, but it is not. While it is certainly true that adequate spending is necessary to sustain the public school system, it is not true that per pupil spending is a major determinative factor in improving test scores. It turns out that it is the quality of the teaching that matters. According to Education Week, that would mean that class size should matter, but does it? Rhode Island has the lowest average class size in the nation, but it ranks 35th in ACT/SAT test scores. Once again, the correlation is not there.  In the end, we are left to look at the Education Week Quality Counts report as simply pushing a specific agenda for greater public school funding and lower class sizes. Is that a bad thing? Certainly not. But it is also misleading to assert that Utah is not performing well because it does not follow the political agenda of Education Week.   

Although these legislative proposals ultimately failed due to the leadership of the House Republicans, there is certainty that the proposals will be back in the 2012 Legislative Session. It is my hope that legislators will take the time to find out the actual facts behind the governance structure of public education and the advantages Utah has with an elected and independent State Board of Education before they vote on any of these proposals.  

In the next blog post in this series, Mr. Thomas talks about partisan versus nonpartisan State Board of Education elections, another proposed change to the governance of public education in Utah.

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