From paychecks to pandemics, state board of education candidates discuss how to improve K-12 academics

Composite photo. Background photo by DGLimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus. Photo of Kristan Norton (left) courtesy of Kristan Norton. Scott Smith photo (right) courtesy of Scott Smith. Bio photo location and dates not specified, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As early voting nears for the Utah 2020 primary election, two Republican candidates are vying for the 15th District seat for the Utah State Board of Education.

This is the first year the state board will be holding partisan elections. The two candidates running for the 2020 election are Scott Smith and Kristan Norton.

Smith, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been working in education for the last 25 years, specifically with youth and troubled teens, as well as substitute teaching. As a parent, Smith told St. George News that he has tried out all different types of schooling with his own children, such as traditional, homeschooling and charter schools.

Smith also served on the State Charter School Board and the State Transparency Advisory Board and said he considers himself a “psychologist in recovery.”

Norton, a fifth grade teacher and lifetime resident of District 15, told St. George News she just finished her 24th year as an elementary school teacher, and while she has spent time working in areas such as professional development and curriculum, she said she finds most joy inside a classroom.

Kristan Norton is a candidate running for the 15th District seat for the Utah State Board of Education, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kristan Norton, St. George News

“That’s my fuel in this job and also the reason I’m running for the Utah State Board of Education,” Norton said.

When it comes to improving the educational system in Utah, Smith said increasing the value of teachers is a critical step.

“We have a teacher shortage because we get teachers straight out of college, and we get them all excited about teaching here in Utah, and then we either export them to Clark County, where they get two or three times the rates, or another state. We export them out after their fourth or fifth year,” he said. “We can’t keep good teachers.”

Providing equal pay across the state to teachers would be one solution to this, he said.

Norton said one of her main goals, should she be elected, would be in representing students.

“I am on the very front lines. The impact of board decisions, locally and at the state, I see it first. I see it in these children’s eyes, and I hear it from the parents, so I feel like I can help tell their story from the perspective of a teacher.”

Norton said this would also allow her to serve as a conduit for the communication traveling back and forth between the state board and the local school communities. Her plan is to listen and collect information from the local schools, charters, districts, PTAs and even higher education and represent that to the board in order to be a voice for the community.

When it comes to education spending, Smith said it’s not as easy as just comparing how Utah matches up to other states.

Scott Smith is a candidate running for the 15th District seat for the Utah State Board of Education, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Scott Smith, St. George News

“It’s hard to compare Utah with California or New York,” he said. “If you want to look at states who spend the most, we’re looking at those bigger states … and they’re spending two or three times the amount per student. Yet there’s no evidence that spending more money on education gives a better quality of education.”

America used to be the leader in education, Smith said.

“Out of the 71 industrialized nations that are graded right now, 30 years ago, America was in the low 20s, which was horrific when you think about how much money we spent and that we started out leading the world,” he said. “Today we are 37th in the world when you’re looking at reading and math. Yet we spend more as a nation than any other country in the world in education.”

He said throwing money at education just doesn’t solve the problem.

“We have an old, antiquated system of education that we’ve been using for years,” he said. “Teachers coming out of college are taught to teach the same way. And we keep duplicating these efforts, and yet it’s not improving.”

In considering multiple statistics that show poor proficiency levels in American students, Smith said that the nation has been “going downhill for 30 years.”

“In our state, as students go through the educational state, they go downhill. And we keep saying all we got to do is keep throwing money at it. No. Every state that throws more money at it is the same or worse. It’s not the money. We’ve got to look at the bigger picture.”

For Norton, whether more money improves academic achievement is a little more complicated. She referred to how the recommended budget cuts moving through the state Legislature offers a way to better assess where the money is going.

In this 2017 file photo, students arrive to check out their new classroom at the newly opened Legacy Elementary School, St. George, Utah, Feb. 9, 2017 | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

“I have mixed feelings. More money spent correctly could be helpful. More money spent on more fluff is not helpful,” she said. “I think this is going to give us a perfect opportunity to go through every single expenditure that we have and really prioritize: Is this essential for improving education?”

As a taxpayer, Norton said she recognizes and appreciates the need for spending efficiently, especially in looking to the year ahead, where there could be as much as $380 million cut from education funding.

“If we could lower our class sizes and have a working, manageable group, what a big difference that would make,” she said. “I know there are things that we can and should cut, but there are also things we need to hold on to.”

On the other side of this, both Norton and Smith expressed their appreciation for the arts and other opportunities, which would benefit from more funding.

For Smith, a major component for improving academic achievement and being prepared should another school closure occur is utilizing virtual education. It’s the lack of of virtual education that leaves American students behind those from other countries, he said.

“We have amazing teachers here. We have amazing students here. But they (other countries) combine and integrate virtual education better than we do,” he said. “In the last three months, because of COVID, we had to learn about virtual education. I’m not talking about books on computers, where all they do is get textbooks on computers and do it.  I’m talking about true, high-quality virtual-teacher instruction.”

In this type of instruction, he said, programs are designed in order to help students progress, so that way a teacher can work with students and need help and implement more creativity in the classroom.

Photo by inarik /iStock/Getty Images Plus; St. George News

“But also teachers can be really creative in how and what they teach. And the excitement comes back into the classroom.”

Smith also mentioned that he felt that end-of-year testing should be eliminated. He said the problem with end-of-the-year testing is that the students and teachers spend a lot of time in preparing for the tests, yet without the test scores having any effect on a student’s grade in a class, there is no real incentive or motivation for a child to push him or herself.

“I believe in benchmarks and making sure we know how we’re doing, but we can do that throughout the year,” he said.

Considering the lessons learned from the school closures and looking ahead toward fall and the possibility of schools shutting down again in the case of a second wave of the coronavirus, Norton said it’s important to note that a one-size-fits-all plan doesn’t work.

“Every single home has a multitude of different scenarios going on that things have to be adjusted for. And that could be a technology problem, but that also can be, ‘Mom’s got four sick kids today,'” she said. “That is something we need to plan better for, the situations going on within the families that we need to be able to adapt for.”

At a location that provides meals for students in Iron County, circa March 2020 | Photo courtesy of Shannon Dulaney, St. George News

Referring to the school closures in March, she said more notice would have been helpful and saved a lot of frustration.

“We did not know that it was going to be a closure when we left school that day. Then when we turned on our televisions at 4:00 in the afternoon, we found out that we were going to be in a whole new world,” she said. “For the students just to have their supplies at home, that would have been nice.”

Norton also addressed the unique challenge elementary schools have when faced with a pandemic.

“So often, we’re also day care,” she said. “That’s a real thing. And we’re going to address that … I’m sure that’s something they’re working on now because students do come to school sick, and there’s no way to get them home. We’re going to have find a way to work with that situation as well.”

The candidates will take part in a debate that will also include candidates for Iron County Commission and state House District 71. The debate is being hosted by the Iron County Republican Women on Monday starting at 4 p.m. at the Courtyard Marriott, 1294 S. Interstate Drive in Cedar City.

The primary election will be held on June 30. Mail-in ballots will begin to be mailed out June 9.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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