Candidates Sue Utah to Keep Politics Out of Schools

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — Partisan elections to the State Board of Education slated to take effect in Utah next year will present an “impossible situation” for governance and “subverts and corrupts” state laws, candidates and the PTA claim in court.

“There is no such thing as Democratic mathematics, English or science. There is no such thing as Republican mathematics, English or science. But there will be if this law is not overturned,” said Break England, of plaintiff Utahns for Public Schools.

England said in an interview that the law will lead to curriculum driven by a single political ideology. “Anybody who wants to run for a position on the state board of education must be blessed by one of the political parties in the state,” he added.

England in 2014 successfully sued Utah over its use of a nominating board that blocked his bid for the state school board.

Four state school board candidates the Utah PTA, Utahns for Public Schools, and the nonprofit ABU Education Fund [Alliance for a Better Utah] in the Tuesday lawsuit against Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s chief elections officer.

Senate Bill 78, sponsored by State Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, and enacted in 2016, requires partisan state school board elections.

In the lawsuit in Salt Lake County Court, the plaintiffs say the law “in effect, channels selection of board candidates through Utah’s partisan caucus/convention system,” and violates the “one person one vote” principle of the Utah Constitution.

It also violates Section 8 of Article X of the state constitution, which prohibits religious or partisan tests in public schools, lead plaintiff A. LeGrand Richards, a candidate, says.

“Since SB 78 makes board membership a partisan office, and by doing so subverts and corrupts ‘one person one vote’ at the one stage in the election process where it matters the most in Utah: the partisan caucus/convention system for nominating candidates for the primary or general election ballots,” the 35-page lawsuit states.

A politically divided board, the plaintiffs say, “will present an impossible situation for board governance, since partisan members will owe their fealty to a political party and nonpartisan members will refuse to have their single-minded devotion to the education of Utah’s children compromised by such political considerations.”

SB78 also prevents nearly 40 percent of voters, “who eschew affiliation with a political party, from the civil opportunity of serving on the board, unless they override their conscience in order to run as a party partisan,” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs said a nonpartisan state school board dates back to the state’s founding, when the state schools superintendent was elected and the board was appointed.

Voters amended the Utah Constitution in 1950 to end state superintendent elections. A 1986 amendment broadened the prohibition, according to the lawsuit.

Josh Kanter, ABU Education Fund chairman of the board, said in a statement that “few things are less vital and should be less partisan than the education of our children.”

“We should be doing all that we can to depoliticize anything relating to the success of our education system, not adding to that politicization,” Kanter added. “Making school board elections partisan will deter some of our most qualified school board candidates and is exactly the wrong thing to be doing in the state and in this political climate.”

Utah schools in 2016 earned a C- on a state report card, and ranked 32nd in the nation, according to Education Week’s annual analysis.

The report grades states on a variety of measures, including achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers, high school graduation rates, and Advanced Placement exams results.

Cox and his staffers could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

The plaintiffs seek declaration that SB78 is unconstitutional and an injunction against its enforcement.

They are represented by David Irvine and Alan Smith, both of Salt Lake City.

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