Law Allowing Utah Gov. to Pick School Board Candidates Ruled Unconstitutional

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 09, 2014 2 min read
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A federal judge has ruled that a Utah law requiring the governor and a nominating committee to select which candidates can appear on the ballot for the state Board of Education is unconstitutional, but gave the state more time to craft a new system before issuing a final order.

U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups issued his ruling Sept. 5 in response to a lawsuit brought by prospective candidates who were not selected by Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, and the committee for the 2014 elections.

The Beehive State’s unusual law takes effect when there are more than two candidates for any of the 15 elected seats on the state board. The governor and a 12-person committee, whose members represent various business interests as well as K-12, interview candidates and narrow down the list of potential candidates for each position on the state board. Then the governor selects two candidates for each spot. Those two appear on the November general election ballots for each seat. (The state school board is nonpartisan.)

The law also states that the nominating committee “shall select a broad variety of candidates” who represent a variety of business as well as educational interests.

Political considerations are not supposed to be a part of the process. But Waddoups said the state’s nominating process isn’t truly neutral. The state argued that prospective candidates not picked by the committee can still conduct write-in campaigns and therefore aren’t being unfairly denied a right to run, but Waddoups also said this is too great a burden to place on those not selected.

The Deseret News reported Sept. 8 that if Waddoups’ ruling holds up, as many as 56 prospective candidates who sought to be on the ballot this year, but who withdrew or weren’t picked by the committee, could be back in the running.

This isn’t the first time people have tried to reform the way Utah school board candidates are elected. In 2011, a bill from state Rep. Carol Moss, a Democrat, proposed the direct election of candidates and the elimination of the nominating committee and the governor’s power to pick candidates. The bill failed to reach the governor’s desk.

The decision has come at an interesting time for education policy in Utah. After much discussion, the Utah state board recently decided to seek a renewal of its waiver from portions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And earlier this year, Herbert decided to revisit the state’s relationship with the Common Core State Standards through an investigation of the standards’ relationship to the federal government led by state attorney general.

Utah is one of six states where the entire state school board is elected, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. See the full state school board governance chart for all 50 states below. UPDATE: The NASBE chart states that Wyoming’s governor selects the state school chief from a list of candidates put forward, but Wyoming actually elects its state chief and is doing so this year. The NASBE chart refers to a law approved by the state legislature in 2013 that changed how the state chief was selected—that law made the chief appointed instead of elected. However, that law was subsquently struck down by the state Supreme Court.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.