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SALT LAKE CITY — As educators look to improve student performance in the new year, State School Board member Kim Burningham says part of the process lies in changing the way lawmakers are elected.
In an article titled "High Hopes for the New Year" posted Thursday on the State Office of Education website, Burningham lists seven things he'd like to see happen in 2014. Included in that list are greater investments in public schools, increased teacher appreciation and the success of the Count My Vote initiative.
"We need the best possible Legislature we can get and the most representative one we can get," Burningham said. "Count My Vote is a step toward making the Legislature more representative of the people."
Burningham said the current party nomination process — in which voters attend neighborhood caucus meetings to select delegates who then cast votes at state nominating conventions — exaggerates the power of small minority groups. Most Utahns, he said, have moderate political views that are underrepresented by the caucus system.
Count My Vote aims to upend the caucus system and include all voters in the nomination process through direct primary elections. Organizers are in the process of gathering signatures with the intent of running a ballot initiative in 2014.
Burningham said he believes there is greater support for public schooling and issues such as class size reduction and per-pupil funding among the general public than there is among Utah's lawmakers. He said by improving the process through which Utah's policymakers are elected, the interests of the public will be better served.
If the Legislature is more representative of the public, then it will naturally be more supportive of education and less of the extreme side.
–Kim Burningham, State School Board
"If the Legislature is more representative of the public, then it will naturally be more supportive of education and less of the extreme side," he said.
But James Humphries, president of the Utah Log Cabin Republicans and public relations director for the Protect Our Neighborhood Elections campaign, said the idea that Count My Vote would lead to greater representation is " a complete lie."
Humphries said the neighborhood delegate elections represent government at the absolute smallest and local level, and force candidates to interact one-on-one with voters before advancing to a general election.
"They want to get rid of the representation at the smallest local level, and they want to sell everyone out to the same general election-style campaigning that exists for every other part of the election cycle," he said.
Humphries also disagreed with the allegation that members of Utah's Legislature do not adequately prioritize or support education. While Utah's per-pupil spending is the lowest in the nation, he said the percentage of the overall state budget invested in schools is among the highest in the country.
The challenge, he said, stems from Utah's large families, young population and high percentage of students who attend public school, which leads to a large student body that dilutes the amount of education dollars available.
"We all agree education matters tremendously," Humphries said. "The difference is that the majority of the state has been sold this lie that Utah doesn’t invest in education when the truth is Utah invests far more than virtually any place in the country in education."
Humphries said many states are envious of Utah's successes, including low unemployment, an annual balanced budget and a growing economy. He said those aspects of state governance are a direct result of neighborhood elections.
"What makes Utah different is our nominating process," he said. "All of this is a direct result of having good policymakers who have been developed through the system that we currently have."
In 2010 and 2012, the Utah Foundation released a survey comparing the priorities of Utah's voters with the priorities of party delegates who participate in nominating conventions. According to the Utah Foundation report, the No. 1 priority of the general electorate in both 2010 and 2012 was improving the quality of K-12 education.
Improving education was also the top priority for Democratic delegates, but it failed to make the top five priorities of Republican delegates in 2010 and 2012.
Taylor Morgan, executive director of Count My Vote, said the Utah Foundation survey illustrates the disparity between the people of Utah and the relatively small number of delegates who choose candidates for elected office. He said many members of the education community endorse Count My Vote, including the Utah Education Association, the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah Parent Teacher Association.
They want to get rid of the representation at the smallest local level, and they want to sell everyone out to the same general election-style campaigning that exists for every other part of the election cycle.
–James Humphries, PR director, Utah Log Cabin Republicans
"They understand that right now, in the current system, elected officials cater policies to the delegates, because right now the delegates have complete control over selecting the candidates for everyone else," Morgan said.
Also included in Burningham's wish list for the new year were stronger ethical requirements for Utah's leaders — a response to the recent allegations surrounding former Attorney General John Swallow — and a hope that national policymakers will value compromise over political posturing.
He also stressed the need for teachers to feel more appreciated by parents and community members for their efforts to educate Utah's children.
Burningham said he worries the atmosphere of negativity surrounding education in Utah weakens performance and holds the state back from improving student outcomes.
"I think criticism is important," he said. "You’ve got to find weakness, but we’ve also got to know that people are doing good things.
"As they feel valued, I think their work actually improves," Burningham continued. "I know wonderful teachers and appreciate them very much."