Utah's legislative task force on education speaks at WSU

A task force of members of the Utah Legislature paid campus a visit on Tuesday. Meeting to talk about the future of education, the Legislative Task Force on Education in Utah was sponsored by the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics.

The representatives met for a discussion with Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, Sen. Gene Davis and Rep. Francis Gibson, with Nolan Karras of the Walker Institute’s board of directors acting as moderator for the panel.

“One of the purposes of our education task force (was to) talk about where education needs to go in the next 10 years,” Niederhauser said. “Legislatures by nature are reactive. They tend to kick the can down the road . . . but we have tried to do more planning, more long-term, but a lot more work needs to be done in that area.”

Lockhart agreed. “One of the motivations behind this task force is what really is the role of the legislature, what is the role of the state board, what is the role of all of these organizations in this system?”

Also presenting at the forum was former Utah Gov. Olene S. Walker. “All of you that are here because you care about your community and your school — thank you,” Walker said. “We are talking about an issue that is so dear to my heart: education. The Walker Institute has done things that are really important to students . . . Thanks (to) the good work from a lot of people, we have openly doubled (the number of legislative interns from Weber State) for this coming year.”

Carol McNamara, Walker Institute director, said she was grateful to the state legislature for the expansion of the internship program that it made possible.

“We’re extremely grateful at the Walker Institute for the support . . . and we’re especially grateful for the support of the legislature for expanding the internship program,” McNamara said. “This will give (WSU students) the opportunity to understand the legislative process more fully, and it will help them to develop into the future leaders of Utah.”

The task force took part in such initiatives as Prosperity 2020, a statewide push for 66 percent of Utahns to have earned postsecondary certificates or degrees, a 13 percent increase from the current status. In addition, the committee has conducted significant amounts of research regarding the best practices of public education within Utah schools.

The WSU Board of Trustees’ Alan Hall, chair of Prosperity 2020, spoke about the importance of the Utah legislature working with education in the state.

“I have been trying to do a deep dive into what our issues and our concerns are, and how to make education in the state of Utah more important,” Hall said. “My hope is that, as we work together as a team . . . we’ll be able to move the needle, that we’ll be able to be recognized as one of the top states in the country, not the lowest in terms of education.”

Niederhauser said Utahns should ask what education should look like and then focus on the policies that are going to get Utah there.

“I’m one that would like to see us do less meddling in the details, and more looking at the long term, creating accountability in our education system . . . and then giving people the flexibility to work within those parameters and excel and innovate. I believe that’s part of where we’re heading.”

Niederhauser said working with teachers was crucial to the process. “We asked them what the issues were, and we have some profound answers, and we’re going to be focusing on a lot of those issues going forth.”

Urquhart said he enjoys working with people from Weber County. “You guys are very direct . . . the contribution that this area has made to the state is phenomenal.” He later talked about the importance of four principles to better prepare students for higher education and the work force, including reading at grade level by third grade, understanding grade-level math by eighth grade, graduating enough students and preparing students for college-level math. “Students who have to take a single remedial math course have a 25 percent chance of graduating from college,” he stated.

Rep. Carol Moss. said that until Prosperity 2020, legislature never set any funding goals. “There are greater needs, and we should start addressing these (with funding).”