Wednesday, April 29, 2009

School Choice: Actual "Choice" or Emotionally-Laden Mindtrap?

As the traditional school year winds down, I've been thinking about the apparent complexitites of education and the chasms between the differing philosophies therein. This post errs a little on the philosophical side, so bear with me.

"School Choice" and Other Euphemisms

Euphemism: a word or phrase used in place of a term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant, or offensive.

In my experience, and as the fruit of many conversations, I've come to believe that the term "school choice" is a euphemism for many things, and probably varies somewhat by person and group.

Here's a partial list:

1. Parents, not the government, should be responsible for educating their children.
2. Our public school system is failing miserably and is far too liberal.
3. Education should be privatized and compete on the free market.

Personally, I don't think "school choice" has much to do with choice in education at all. I think it tends to be a euphemism for promoting whatever agenda it is disguising. In Utah, I think it serves as a smokescreen for the range of ideas I've just listed. I also think it's a term that hooks people emotionally and rallies them around a bandwagon that is not entirely transparent. For example, in the name of "school choice", groups of parents have started charter schools and/or supported vouchers for their children and communities...but have they unwittingly furthered an agenda to ultimately privatize education in Utah? I don't know, but I sure do wonder.

Now, I can be fair. Do I think there are many school choice advocates who sincerely want to improve education? Of course. Are many school choice advocates open to ideas, dialogue, and collaboration? I believe so. To any of you who fall into this category, kudos and please read on. Utah needs you.

Euphemisms and False Dichotomies

The problem I have with a euphemism like the term "school choice" is that it's an emotionally-charged way to set up a false dichotomy. It's a mindtrap that forces a complex issue into two false options. Even in casual conversation, let alone heated political debate, the very term divides people into proponents and opponents. However, the ideas around school choice are not mutually exclusive....we don't simply have choice or no choice. In my experience, it's a complicated mix of competing political, social, and economic ideologies.

In a free, democratic (okay, representative republic) society like America, aren't we all theoretically supportive of "school choice"? I mean, honestly, who in their right mind doesn't want to have a choice in how, where, and in what form they and their children are educated? The reality, at least in Utah, is that we all have choice in education. The public school system allows open enrollment options and non-traditional options like charter schools. Home schooling is a legal option, and private schools are available. For some families, I realize that these options might be purely theoretical. Open enrollment is nice, but you have to drive your students to the school of your choice. Charter schools enroll by random lottery, and private schools require often exorbitant tuition. For some families, these are practical barriers to real choices. I see many of the problems, but there must be better solutions than hiding behind divisive euphemisms. We all want choice, we currently do have choices available, and yet we deal with some very real barriers and challenges. What we need are real solutions.

So, if we're not talking about choice, what are we talking about? I think its about a clash of idealogies, barriers to practical solutions, and often, ego. There, I said it.

A Call for Real Dialogue, Not Idealogues

Idealogue: an often blindly partisan advocate of a particular ideology.

I tend to believe that if people can find enough common ground, solutions to previously perplexing problems often reveal themselves. I'm not completely delusional...I've seen it happen time and time again. However, it takes courage, honesty, humility, and genuine dialogue. Idealogues (and egomaniacs) need not apply. We need creative, collaborative, solution-oriented people who can move beyond tired euphemisms and over-zealous partisanship. I realize there are many idealogical chasms, but there must also be bridges.

As an observer of the complexities of education, I notice that using a term like "school choice" immediately creates division between the very people who could potentially create solutions. It creates a spirit and practice of partisanship that prevents solution-oriented dialogue and cooperation. Language is persuasive. It frames and defines our liberates or confines, it allows or denies, it illuminates or confuses.

Let's let go of the emotionally-laden mindtraps, open up some real dialogue, and figure out how to work together. Education is too critical a topic for euphemistic games.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Senator Stephenson's Blatant Conflict of Interest

I'll lay out the plain and simple facts. You try to process the paradox.

March 30, 2009: Governor Huntsman signs H.B. 345 (Elected Officials - Restrictions on Lobbying sponsored by Rep. Dee) and the bill becomes law. What does this bill do? It simply says that a former legislator is not allowed to register as a lobbyist for one year after leaving office. Why? Because a former legislator could exercise undue influence over their former colleagues. Of course, there are loopholes in this law, but we're talking about the intent of the bill for the purpose of this post.

If there is a concern that a former legislator could possibly exercise undue influence, what does that say about a powerful, current legislator? What about a powerful, current legislator who is also a registered lobbyist? What about a powerful, current legislator who is also a registered lobbyist AND the president of the Association that he/she lobbies on behalf of?

Here come the plain and simple facts!

  • Senator Howard Stephenson is a powerful Senator serving on an influential committee, namely the Senate Education Committee.

  • Senator Howard Stephenson is a registered lobbyist for the Utah Taxpayers Association.

  • Senator Howard Stephenson declares a conflict of interest with legislative subject areas involving the Utah Taxpayers Association.

  • Senator Howard Stephenson is the President of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

  • The latest issue of the Utah Taxpayers Association newsletter boasts the defeat of HB150 that would have made the State Board of Education seats a fair, open and non-partisan election. From the newsletter:

    "Reflecting the Association’s broad mandate, the Taxpayers Association’s key bills fell into four categories this year: Education Reform, Government Transparency, Taxes and Miscellaneous. In education reform, we continued to champion parental involvement in their children’s education by making sure HB 2 did not cap the number of Utah charter schools. In addition, we beat back a challenge to the committee which recruits and nominates candidates for the state school board. With a membership balanced between representatives from the education and business communities, this board has done a remarkable job of recruiting candidates with a broad array of backgrounds to run for the State School Board. Despite the board’s well-documented success, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss sponsored HB 150 to eliminate the committee. Although the House approved HB 150, the Senate Education Committee did not approve it." (emphasis added)
  • Senator Howard Stephenson is a member of the Senate Education Committee and voted "nay" on the motion to recommend H.B. 150!!
Can you see how blatant and wrong this is? Senator Stephenson openly admits a conflict of interest and at the same time admits that the organization that he is the President of and registered lobbyist of is the one whose "key bill" they "beat back" and that the Senate Education Committee which he is a member of "did not approve it" and he boasts it openly and publicly. Wow!

Perhaps this is something that can be discussed at the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy. Their next meeting is on May 21 (location to be determined) and the focus for the meeting is lobbying regulations. They even want our opinion so this is our opportunity. We can continue to allow the people in charge to continue to abuse the system, or we can get involved and try to make a difference. If we don't try then we only have ourselves to blame.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Redistricting Rumble: Governor Stands Down, Voters Step Up

Okay, just because Governor Huntsman acquiesced to House Speaker, Dave Clark, by "standing down" on ethics and redistricting, maybe all is not lost. Take a look at this article in today's Salt Lake Tribune covering the efforts of a new coalition formed to breathe life into an independent redistricting commission.

The Fair Boundaries Coalition is calling for an independent redistricting commission, and wants it put to a public vote in 2010.

The Utah Constitution does identify redistricting as a responsibiltiy of the Legislative branch, but there are broad concerns that lawmakers create districts to benefit themselves (and perhaps close-knit groups of lawmakers with similar agendas) rather than creating districts based on population centers and shared interests that benefit voters and that speaks to a more democratic process. Currently, redistricting is a strong and blatantly-wielded power tool that has already affected the political process.

Because citizen initiatives cannot be used to ammend the Utah Constitution, the independent commission is proposed as an advisory role, leaving lawmakers with the final say in redistricting. While there may be some risk that the commission would end up offering only symbolic oversight, it might also serve as a strong first step toward balancing the redistricting scale.

The Fair Boundaries Coalition brings together a diverse, non-partisan group of Democratic, Republican, Third-Party, and Independent members. They need at least 94,000 voter signatures by April 15th, 2010 to secure a place on the ballot. Democracy in action. Step up, voters!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Governor's Commission Backs Off Addressing Ethics

If you haven't already read Thurday's Deseret News article on Governor Huntsman's democracy commission, please take time to digest its content and implications. In a nutshell, what has recently been informally referred to as the governor's "ethics commission" is now nothing of the sort. The governor originally wanted to study why the citizens of Utah were not participating in the political process and had identified several possible reasons, including discouragement over ethics problems.

Originally, five areas were under scrutiny for both study and redress: campaign finance, lobbying, elections, as well as ethics and redistricting. However, House Speaker, Dave Clark (R) asked the governor to "stand down" on tackling ethics and redistricting as part of the commission's work, and Huntsman has agreed. Apparently the idea that ethics reform and redistricting fall solely under Legislative branch purview, and that Governor Huntsman was stepping on toes, has won the day.

Can We Say "We Told You So", Yet?

In a recent blog Did the media dupe us on Huntsman's "Ethics Commission"?, my blogging partner, Sara, questioned the intent behind this commission. Kudos to Sara for seeing, and nailing, the writing on the wall! We have both blogged about various incarnations of ethics blunders and the "clear as the nose on your face" need for serious and real ethics reform in Utah. While some may feel that issues of ethics and redistricting should be issues handled by the Legislative branch, Governor Huntsman's decision simply begs the sad, yet critical, opportunity to say "we told you so". The term "ethics reform" has become a popular buzz word used for spin and hype, but has not come to represent, at least as yet, real change in Utah politics.

I also wonder how serious the governor is about gift bans and holding the Executive branch to a higher standard... Just curious. In any case, as it currently stands, the Legislative branch will continue policing itself...and perhaps the governor will continue wondering why Utahns are frustrated with Utah politics and "democracy".

You can keep up on the governor's commission at

Still One of Only Ten States Without an Ethics Commission

I feel like a broken record, but we have underscored on this site that Utah is still only one of ten states that does not have an independent Ethics Commission. Come on, folks. What does it take to get some genuine, objective oversight in this state? In December, I wrote:

Utah is one of only ten states that does not have an independed Ethics Commission. In our case, we have Senate and House Ethics Committees, intended to be bi-partisan in nature with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Utah also relies on the Attorney General's office to provide ethics oversight. However, given the recent ethics debacles and their subsequent investigations (or relative lack thereof), it doesn't take much to realize that legislators policing legislators is not an ideal model.

Ethics reform was the hyped battlecry of this year's legislative session and hope was high for some of us that it would bear the fruit of an independent Ethics Commission.....especially since early talk about the governor's commission on democracy would take a serious look at ethics. What sounded like a genuine step toward a real Ethics Commission now just falls under the category of "business as usual".

Two, Okay, Three, Fundamental Changes We Need

In a recent post, I mentioned:

On this site, we have called for at least two fundamental changes in ethics reform, and they bear repeating:

1. Strong, clearly-written, and enforceable ethics legislation
2. An independent Ethics Commission

In my humble opinion, Utah has wasted yet another year and legislative session on hype, feel-good spin, and less-than-real progress toward measureable, impactful ethics reform. The two fundamental changes I just identified are yet at least another legislative session away from being taken seriously. Upon further reflection, I want to add another fundamental change we need: some new, honest, ethical public that change can come from the inside out. Maybe I'll run for office.