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Public Education

Public Education

At the time of my 1993 inauguration as governor, Jackie and I had children attending public schools at every level of Utah’s education system. Anne Marie and Chase were young children attending Bonneville Elementary; Taylor was a student at Clayton Middle School; and Mike was in his freshman year at East High School. With a few exceptions, our children had teachers we judged to be on a continuum from good to excellent. And like most other Utah children, their schools struggled with large class sizes and limited funding. 

Jackie and I were involved parents. Engagement with school assignments was a daily thing for both of us. Each of our children had individual needs and we sought to guide and supplement their public-school experiences where needed. Yet sometimes those efforts were met with friction, which created an impression for us that public schools could be a rigid and implacable system. That troubled me. 

My ideas and opinions about public education had been profoundly impacted by my membership on the Utah Public Education Strategic Planning Task Force. This was a committee created by the legislature, which undertook a four-year examination of Utah’s public-school policy and strategy. The task force was a unique and valuable learning experience, as well as important preparation for a future governor. 

Also during this period, I led a bipartisan coalition of business and community leaders in opposing two separate ballot initiatives in 1988 and 1990 that were aimed at dramatically reducing and repealing taxes in Utah. We prevailed both times in campaigns that ultimately were less about the single issue of tax cuts and more about the overall direction of the state. The entire process contributed greatly to my understanding of education issues in Utah and my ability to speak fluently about problems and solutions impacting our schools. 

Despite my acknowledgment of public education’s institutional imperfections, I was an advocate for its importance and sympathetic to the complexity of the challenges faced by Utah’s system. This added substantially to my credibility with the public and the education community. By working closely together in defense of public education, I gained the confidence of those who led organizations representing teachers, superintendents, school board members, and parents. Even though we had disagreed on many issues, these associations became a great political asset that contributed to my success in the 1992 election and beyond. 

Utah’s History of Above-Average Results and Below-Average Funding

Utah is unique among the states when it comes to education. Our state is the youngest in the nation, as measured by median age in census after census. We also have larger families. That has been so since statehood. In 1944, two academicians from Iowa State University conducted an analysis and ranking of education systems nationwide, and their published study two years later found that “Utah easily outclasses all other states in overall performance in education,” despite having just average school spending. More tax dollars were spent on education in those earlier days, even as the high birth rates made that prospect a bit painful. It worked, however. The researchers, Raymond Hughes and William Lancelot, found that Utah children were more likely to attend school and stay in school longer than students of any other state; Utah had the second-highest completion rate for eighth grade; the highest graduation rate from high school; and the highest percentage of college graduates.(1)

In the 1950s, about the time I became a public-school student, things began to change. Chronic underfunding met up with the advent of teacher activism and political calls for reforms. The battles have been pitched ever since among teacher unions, state and local school boards, parent associations, and the legislature. 

My Aspirations for Public Education

In my 1993 inaugural address, my point of view was clear. I declared high aspirations for basic changes in public education. 

I call for revolutionary improvement because a revolution is taking place in the workplace. I propose world-class as our standard because we are now competing with the world. Nothing short of a revolution, nothing short of world-class, will suffice. We must lift the basic structure and culture of public education to place value on competency, outcome, and achievement, instead of on the process and time spent in class. ‘Normal,’ as it existed in the past, will not return. The momentum of change and technological growth is too rapid. To those of you who feel reluctant, please join us—join us in a great adventure, where together we build world-class schools.

My speech was a call to change our approach and our philosophy on education. I felt strongly we should define success by results rather than dollars spent or processes followed. This was a call to reorient our focus from top-down measures to fostering innovation at the most basic local level: neighborhood schools. I also committed to be involved at ground level in public education, promising to visit Utah schools from one end of the state to the other—a commitment that began with my campaign and endured for the duration of my service. 

The Importance of Visiting Schools 

School visits became a regular occurrence after I was elected governor. By my estimate, I visited more than two hundred and fifty schools during my first term, and more than four hundred overall. These visits were important because they showed the eye-opening reality of what goes on not just in public schools but also in the lives of children and families within our communities. Each visit provided new insights that shaped and molded my views. 

We developed a general pattern for school visits where I would meet with the students in an assembly. I developed age-appropriate language to teach them about the state of Utah, its history, opportunities, and problems. I would respond to their questions. I tried to mix among them so I did not appear as a mysterious, distant adult of some importance. Following the assembly, I often spoke with small groups of faculty or administrative staff, usually in groups of two to ten. At times I would look at programs or activities the school was proud of or wanting to promote. If I had a message I wanted to convey to the public, the media would be invited. School visits always produced great pictures for television or newspapers, which enhanced my messaging. 

These visits also kept me in touch with Utahns’ daily lives. Public schools provide a direct view of societal complexities, hardships, and injustices. I visited schools where more than a quarter of the students had a parent who was incarcerated. I met a fifth grader who, the principal confided to me, had come to school intoxicated. I saw children who were abused and neglected. On one school visit, I sat on the floor of a multi-purpose room amid a group of children, trying to converse with a child who seemed a bit frightened by my presence. When he would not answer me after several attempts, another student tugged on my coat to explain that he didn’t speak English. The little boy’s teacher said that he had been dropped off by his migrant parents earlier in the week. Typically in these situations, the parents would work in the fields for a while and then move on to another town. Until then, the teachers would do the best they could. 

On a different occasion a second- or third-grade boy grabbed my leg as I walked past him. I could see he was upset. I said, “Is everything okay?” He began to sob. “They won’t let me see my mom.” 

Further investigation revealed he had been placed in foster care because his mother was using meth. The little boy did not know me or understand my role. He just sensed that by all the fuss being made, I must be important. In desperation he grabbed on to me like a log drifting by. He was drowning. 

I spoke with the principal and arranged an intervention by social services. The experience made clear that no child in a state of trauma would be learning to read. Until his problem had been resolved, education was out of his reach. 

I met homeless children, and children who had been abused and were in foster care. I spoke with teachers struggling to affect the lives of children in a school where twenty-five different languages were spoken by their students. Among my visits were schools inside detention centers. In other schools, I was told eighty percent of the student body were on Medicaid. 

Utah’s Unique Public School Challenges

As governor of Utah, I struggled with the perpetual conundrum my predecessors and successors faced—consistently underfunded schools. Measured on a per capita basis Utah was typically forty-ninth of fifty states in per capita spending.(2) Utahns have more children than those who live in other states—an attribute of a population with a majority belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church teaches the importance of family as a core doctrine.

During the 1990s, the population of school children was growing at unprecedented rates. 

Large family size was not the only driver in our forty-ninth place showing. At that time, Utah was also a low-wage state. I often joked that whenever we were measured on a per capita basis we were always going to be low because Utah had so many per capitas (children). Raising tax rates would have made family finances more difficult. It also would have hurt job creation. 

My views rested on a belief that to increase the economic well-being of our public schools, we needed to grow the Utah economy. I continually linked quality jobs and quality of education in my public speeches, remarks, or messaging. I believed spending increases would not be sustainable unless we created more and better jobs. I referred to these as family-wage jobs. A better-educated workforce, I believed, was the key. Particularly workers able to thrive in the coming technology economy. 

Despite these structural headwinds, Utah educators often achieved comparably admirable outcomes. In the sport of boxing, fighters are often assessed on a “pound-for-pound basis.” It might be said that Utah punched above our weight. Despite Utah’s large population of children and low per capita funding, the results achieved were better than one may rationally have expected. I believe this happened because of higher-than-average engagement by families and other characteristics of the Utah population. As family engagement drops, so do test scores. 

Reading in a school library to students
Governor Leavitt reading to a group of elementary school children

Though the flaws of public education were evident to me, these experiences also helped me understand that a public education system is of bedrock importance in a democracy. The demographic changes occurring in Utah were on full display there, and I came to understand that if we did not provide education to this new population, it would come back to challenge us in the future. 

The Governor’s Role in Education

Governors almost always have outsized aspirations to influence public education, and citizens then expect them to deliver. Less well understood is that Utah public schools are constitutionally separate from state government. School boards at the state and local levels get elected independently—mostly in nonpartisan elections, although the state board candidates now run for office with political party affiliations under very recent changes enacted by the legislature. 

State government does not manage or govern schools. However, the legislature is constitutionally required to ensure every child receives a “free” public education. The courts have also required the state to create a system of equalization ensuring a degree of equality among different parts of the state. This is done by supplementing local taxes with state income and other taxes. Ironically, the legislature often imposes limits on the tax authority of local schools and other taxing mechanisms. As a result, it means the state legislature ostensibly funds the schools. Legislators determine the amount of money public education systems will receive, and they have an ability to use the money they appropriate to leverage certain general behaviors. 

Governors have the powers I’ve already mentioned—recommending a budget, appointing school boards, and pushing the system via their amplified voice. The governor can put pressure on education systems to make specific changes, and I regularly did just that.

Four Strategic Pillars of My Education Strategy 

My inaugural address in January 1993 foreshadowed what became a consistent push throughout the nearly eleven years I served. With intentionality we focused on four strategic pillars: increasing funding where possible; using information technology to enhance productivity; measuring demonstrated competency, not seat time; and allowing local control. 

How did we do?

Education Funding: From the funding standpoint, we made education the highest funding priority in state government. From 1994 to 2004, public education funding increased $762 million. Average teacher salaries increased 31 percent, from $29,081 in 1994–1995 to $38,139 by 2002. Pupil-teacher ratios declined by four students per teacher during the same time period as $51.6 million was spent on class-size reduction. Also during that time span, school and institutional trust land assets grew from $84 million in 1993 to $453 million in 2003—a more than five-fold increase in the course of a decade. 

The numbers reflect that the state did dramatically increase funding during my time as governor. However, even with what at times felt like heroic efforts, Utah public schools would not be considered well-funded when I started, and they would not have been considered generously financed when I finished. However, my advocacy with the legislature made a significant difference in funding levels. 

Every year, those levels were a primary disagreement we had to resolve. With rare exception, I was advocating for more than the legislature provided. The reality is, we did the best we could, but the demographic and economic realities of Utah during that period simply dictated our response and the limits of what could be prudently done without seriously damaging the state’s economic well-being. 

Tech Transformation: I unreservedly declare my administration as high achievers in the category of positioning the state for the technology revolution. We implemented the use of information technology, the internet, and the infrastructure to support the tech transformation during my time as governor. It was an unwavering priority throughout my service. 

I will not repeat the details provided in other portions of this history, but the 1990s were the era during which these technologies were emerging. Computers were a rare sight before we started, and every school used them a decade later. Internet access was achieved over dial-up lines in those days. Internet access was highly rare, if it existed at all when I was elected. At the end of my service, every school had what was considered then to be high-speed internet access. We trained teachers, established lofty goals, and introduced an early version of education software. 

I viewed implementation of information technology in schools as critical not just to education but our state’s economic prosperity. I used direct appropriations and regulatory pressure with Utah’s utilities to get basic internet signals into classrooms, public buildings, and homes. We pushed teachers to learn how to use these innovative technologies, and I spoke constantly of its promise. Every year we made specific investments in this category. History should record that Utah’s technology infrastructure, including in schools, advanced rapidly during the time of my service. 

By the turn of the century, 99 percent of Utah schools had internet access, placing our state second in the nation, according to Education Week’s “Technology Counts 2001” report. We had pushed hard to hit that marker, and there was much more I wanted to do. 

Measuring Competency: Advancing students based on demonstrated competency was a major theme throughout my time as governor, both in public education and higher education. I used my influence to drive competency as a measurement criterion with consistent devotion. We successfully passed legislation creating special scholarships, schools, and programs to incentivize students to accelerate the pace of their learning and the systems supporting that goal. It can accurately be said I was more successful in higher education than public education. My most evident success was Western Governors University, which is entirely based on competency measurement. However, the formation of eight high-tech high schools in Utah, and the reorganization of Utah’s applied technology centers into the Utah College of Applied Technology were also important advancements for competency measurement. Both used competency ideology as a foundation. The WGU story is told in Chapter 4. The story of the high-tech charter high schools and Utah College of Applied Technology will be told later in this chapter. 

Local Governance: My successful advocacy and leadership in creating a charter school movement in Utah was my most important accomplishment in localizing school governance. It is clear to me now that much of my desire to see more local control and innovation in schools was reflected in my own frustration as a parent. Jackie and I worked to individualize our children’s education. We hired tutors and teachers to supplement their school experience. Within our local school communities, our efforts were resisted—almost resented. So, when I became governor, I proposed structured programs that rewarded schools that involved parents and accepted unique ideas. We gave those that went through the process allotments of money they could deploy. We called the first attempt Centennial Schools in acknowledgement that Utah would soon celebrate its hundredth anniversary as a state. 


1. Davis County Charter School, NUAMES

2. Mike Leavitt greeting charter school students

3. Meeting with elementary school students


Candidly, my first-term initiatives to increase parental involvement induced little lasting improvement in school governance. However, the process taught me an important lesson: permanent alteration of social and bureaucratic behavior requires structural change. Recognizing that, I changed my approach and adopted a more aggressive strategy. 

Significant Education Initiatives 

There were dozens of projects and programs focused in support of our four strategic pillars. This section of my history will provide greater depth on four of those initiatives: 

  • Building Utah’s education technology 

  • Instigating the charter school movement in Utah 

  • Creating high-tech/early-college high schools

  • Reshaping Utah’s system of applied technology centers into an applied technology college system 

Building Utah’s Education Technology 

It began with the “Bicycle Speech,” the comprehensive, education-forward blueprint I presented to members of the Board of Regents, the State Board of Education, and Utah legislators in a speech at Southern Utah University six months after my inauguration. 

Comparing the modernization and tech-harnessing potential of our education system to a rider upgrading from a stolidly reliable old Schwinn bike to a 21-gear all-terrain speed bike, I made a case for substantive, accelerated change—in the way we think, work, and measure success in education—and issued three challenges: First, to make education an activity unbound by buildings or space by investing in and using technology to deliver education to students anytime, anywhere. Secondly, I challenged higher education to make all courses necessary for general associate degrees available through technology by the end of 1996, and for public education to have the secondary core curriculum available through technology in the same time period. Third, I proposed we pick up the pace in education by streamlining the process for high school students to complete their secondary requirements early and expand concurrent enrollments in college or applied technology courses while also removing some of the roadblocks in higher education that dragged out the traditional degree process. 

“This is not just a dream. It will soon be reality.”

I also proposed the establishment of an electronic high school, a totally online secondary school with all core classes delivered via compact disk or downloaded over networks, and ambitious expansion of Utah Education Network (UEN) services—from K-12 education programs like UtahLINK to the video-based education services of EDNET, which at that time had forty video-learning sites located at schools or public buildings. 

“This is not just a dream. It will soon be reality,” I told the gathering. “As we speak, fiber optic systems are being planned and constructed by telephone and cable television companies. Within this decade, EDNET-type interaction will be possible over virtually unlimited channels from homes and buildings all over America. The potential impact on education is dramatic. No longer is the process restricted by place or space.” 

The emphasis on technology was everything. The internet was not widely available at this point, so the seismic change it would bring was just beginning. “Some will dismiss this as a passing fad,” I said. “I assure that that it is not. It is the future. Whether we accept these challenges or not, all of these things will happen one day. The only real question is whether we lead or follow.”(3) 

Utah Education Network
Mike Leavitt speaking at Eccles Broadcast Center

Leading out on technology meant access to technology and building out our technology infrastructure from one corner of the state to the other. And we led on that, too. One year after the speech, U S West, the largest telecommunications company serving the intermountain region, formed an “anchor tenant” partnership with the state to construct a fiber-optic wide area network (WAN) to support the online distance and rural education services of the Utah Education Network (UEN), a publicly funded consortium of public and higher education, state government, business, and industry created to provide access to education resources for Utah’s nearly eight hundred schools, nine colleges and universities, and four applied technology center sites from Logan to St. George. 

The goal was huge. The network would provide every student in Utah, regardless of their location, the technology to access the highest level of education opportunities through the internet, the worldwide web, and point-to-point videoconferencing. 

Also in 1994, the Utah Electronic High School opened as a division of the Utah State Office of Education, offering all Utah secondary school courses and serving four basic needs: early graduation for students completing coursework online; course availability for rural and remote students; access to coursework for homeschool students; and an opportunity for remedial students who failed certain courses to retake them online, providing additional chances for successfully obtaining a diploma. 

By 1999, results were quantifiably positive, according to THEJournal, an education-technology magazine and website geared toward K-12 school administrators, IT professionals, and tech-savvy educators. The U S West collaboration with UEN was highlighted. 

“UEN’s five-year partnership with U S West has taken hundreds of thousands of Utah public and higher education students from all corners of the state to an educational center stage,” THEJournal said in a November 1999 edition, making possible “the connectivity solution that is taking rural and suburban students into the 21st century.”(4)

From its inception in 1983, EDNET grew to over seventeen thousand public and higher education enrollments for the school year ending in June 1998, according to the report, with more than a hundred daily videoconferencing events and an expansion to two hundred public education videoconferencing sites offering high school students the state’s core curriculum via the U S West fiber-optic telecommunications infrastructure. 


1. Jackie and Mike Leavitt meeting with elementary students

2-4. Mike Leavitt meeting with students throughout Utah 

5. Jackie and Mike Leavitt speaking at The Governors Public Education Program Conference


Select college and university courses were offered over EDNET as well, along with access to public education administrators and teachers for in-service training, staff meetings, or teacher recertification. The electronic high school, meantime, was accomplishing its goals as well, THEJournal reported, with more than twenty-one thousand high school course credits having been taken by 1999, reflecting an enrollment of sixteen thousand high school students. 

“I see more expansion in the use of technology in our schools,” U S West’s Utah vice president, Ted Smith, told THEJournal. “At the classroom level, technology will become more of a tool in curriculum development.”(5) 

“At the classroom level, technology will become more of a tool in curriculum development.”

Funding for much of the tech-education investment began with my Technology 2000 initiative in 1994, when I proposed an appropriation of more than $120 million in state funding by the year 2000, calling it “broader in scope, bolder in size, historic in impact.” 

The endeavor was coordinated with local governments, schools, universities, colleges, and the private sector to “revolutionize education” by training teachers and professors in the use of technology, developing technology-delivered courses, and building the largest wide area network of its kind in the world.

Charter Schools in Utah

During my 1992 campaign for governor, the most significant issue differentiating me and my primary election opponent, Richard Eyre, was the viability of school vouchers for private schools. This was an idea advanced by conservative Republicans under which state government would provide every school student a voucher they could spend on education. These vouchers could be spent at their neighborhood public school or a private school. 

Voucher advocates believed that injecting competition into schools would improve them. Eyre argued that moving more children out of public schools and into private schools would take pressure off class sizes and relieve the economic burden on local school districts to build new schools. Eyre knew his argument was attractive to the Republican base. I think he assumed that he could still win the general election once through the primary, and he bet heavily on this issue. 

The idea of vouchers and competition in public school was alluring ideologically to me. Our family had found public schools to be inflexible and maddening at times. The thought that private schools would be more customer friendly was a welcome thought. However, the more I studied the impact it would have on the viability of the public school system, the more skeptical I became. 

There were important reasons to be cautious about vouchers. It was clear to me that vouchers would draw funding away from public schools where the vast majority of Utah students were enrolled. I was aware of how hurtful that would be in an already underfunded system. There was also an important equity argument. These vouchers would pay for only part of the tuition at most private schools. Those who would logically benefit were affluent families, many of whom were already sending their students to private schools. Another issue was student selection. It was clear that schools that could cherry-pick their own students would exclude groups of students who struggled for a variety of reasons. This would create another serious inequity for public schools. Finally, I believed the idea of vouchers, while a winner among conservatives, would be a loser within the general electorate. Public schools were popular. It would be framed as a battle between haves and have-nots. Ultimately, the have-nots would win. 

During the primary campaign against Eyre, I argued private schools were an important asset for the state and that they should be supported but not subsidized financially by the state. In addition to all the arguments listed above, I asserted that there were ways to subject public schools to competitive pressures other than vouchers. I spoke of a new concept being tried in a few other areas of the United States called charter schools and signaled my interest in the concept. Charter schools were privately managed public schools. Such schools would not be allowed to cherry-pick students and would not be allowed to charge tuition beyond what they got from the state. It was a robust debate Eyre and I had many times. I prevailed in the primary election, and it turned out not to be issue in the general election that followed. 

After I won the general election, I proceeded forward with implementation of the local control concepts put forward with the Utah Education Strategic Plan that I had been so deeply involved in developing. However, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of progress I was observing. School behavior and management responded to appropriation, but naturally gravitated back to its original behavior when the money was gone. By the end of my first term, I reached the conclusion mentioned earlier that real change had to be permanent structural changes in the system, and I resolved to take a new approach after the 1996 election was over. 

During my first four years, I continued to hear about charter school experiments in other states. I actively followed them and asked my education deputy Gary Carlston to begin gathering information. We discovered that a state representative, Brian Allen of Sandy, had a real interest in charter schools and was keen on sponsoring legislation. We began collaborating with Representative Allen. I was not yet ready to drive a stake in the ground in support of charter schools, but I liked the concept. The idea was straightforward. Private groups could be granted a public charter to form a school. Under the charter they would be subject to state regulation and could receive public money. 

The more I learned, the better I felt about charter schools. I much preferred charter public schools to vouchers, so I decided to move the idea forward slowly, without calling a lot of attention to our early exploration. 

In the 1997 legislature we updated our Centennial Schools proposal and funding. As part of that we quietly added the creation of a committee involving school officials, legislators, and the Governor’s Office to study charter schools. The bill passed both houses and was signed into law on March 17, 1997. The task force studying charter schools began operating in June 1997 and was co-chaired by Brian Allen, with Senator David Steele. I was represented on the panel by Gary Carlston. Other members were Senators Joe Hull and Howard Stephenson, and Representatives Judy Ann Buffmire, Brad King, Evan Olsen, and Bill Wright. A group of public-school officials were anxious to be at the table. The fact that Dr. Steven Laing, the state superintendent of public instruction, opted to attend reflects the level of their concern. Also included were the head of the Utah Teachers Association, Pat Rusk, and Alpine School District Superintendent Steven Baugh. Three private citizens were appointed—Margie Coombs, William Moore, and Sharlene Hawkes. 

Representative Allen wrote two historical accounts about the task force and legislative processes that established charter schools in Utah—one history for the legislature in February 2006 and another for me in January 2022. In his 2022 history, Brian wrote that the charter school task force met ten times throughout the interim of 1997. They could agree on many things, but as one would expect, how to finance charter schools was the sticking point. Public school leaders did not want the money to come from existing funds. Those of us trying to change the current system considered charter schools to be a new type of public school and insisted they be funded as such. Our office, primarily Gary Carlston and Con Rowley from my budget office, led a collaboration with the legislative staff to develop some ideas. Our goal was to introduce this effort during the 1998 session. 

The task force put the public education community on high alert. They were ready to fight. I felt finesse was better in this case than direct confrontation. This was reflected in my light touch treatment of public education in the 1998 State of the State speech. While it framed the arguments we would use in getting it passed, I did not lead with charter schools, nor did I use it as a speech headliner. However, the bill was at the top of my priority list. My comments included these words: 

Three hundred seventy-two schools accepted a challenge to become Centennial Schools by establishing performance goals and assuming control over their own progress. Now we go to the next level. We want to raise the bar of excellence, with two more steps forward. Alongside 21st Century Schools is a proposal to establish eight public chartered schools. They are public schools that are free, public schools that are open to any student and public schools that are accountable to an elected board. They are public schools, but not necessarily government schools. They serve diverse needs and interests. I envision one specializing in math or the arts; another for students with the drive to earn an associate degree with their high-school diploma. There are endless possibilities. 

About two weeks after the session started, HB145 was published and distributed under the title “Schools for the 21st Century.” The public education community reacted immediately and aggressively. The State Board of Education, the elected body constitutionally charged to govern public schools, formally opposed the bill. The Utah PTA, the Utah Teachers Association, the Utah School Boards Association, and the Utah School Superintendents Association all followed in succession with their protests. It was all hands on deck to protect the monopoly school districts had on publicly funded schools. 

I had been a consistent ally for the public education community. Direct conflict between the education community and the governor was a new and unique feature of the 1998 legislative session. Shortly after the session started, the Utah School Boards Association invited me to address the entire community at their annual banquet at the Little America Hotel. I was direct with them about my support for the charter school bill saying: 

Utah’s constitution requires a free public education to every citizen. In keeping with our constitutional requirement, the state legislature has established school districts and given them the power to govern schools within a geographical area. The creation of a school district is in essence, a charter. In that sense, every public school district in Utah is a charter school. 

The question before the Utah legislature is whether school districts should have a monopoly on the creation and governance of public schools. Charter schools as they are being proposed in HB145 meet every criterion as a public school. They would be free public schools. They would be public schools that are open to any student. They would be public schools accountable to an elected board. 

There are many, and I am among them, who believe that public schools would be improved by the pressure of competition. Some people in our community would redefine a ‘free education’ to mean that each student will get a voucher to select a private school. I am not among those. However, I believe we need to work together to collaboratively figure out how to test these ideas. Otherwise, the voucher voices will grow stronger.

I told the 1,200 people in the audience that “experimenting with fewer than a dozen charter schools would be a careful experiment. We must not be afraid to try new things.” 

The audience consisted of elected school board members from across Utah. They were conservative by nature. I felt like I moved the needle with the rank and file, but leaders of the school organizations were not ready to give up. 

Brian Allen’s January 2022 historical account described what happened after my speech: 

The bill went to a hearing on February 24, 1998. There was so much interest in the bill that the House Education Committee reserved the auditorium in the State Office Building for the hearing. There were close to three hundred people in attendance. Most of them did not support the charter school portion of the bill. Because the hearing was not in a normal committee room, I was not able to sit at a table to present the bill. I had to stand at a podium. The committee moved the substitute bill, and it was adopted. The biggest objections to the bill came from the education establishment. 

Local districts didn’t like that they had to give up money, and they were concerned about the work they would have to do if a school failed and the local district had to pick up the pieces. The State School Boards and State Superintendents Associations didn’t like the fact that the charter schools would fall outside their jurisdiction. The UEA was concerned that teachers might not be qualified and would fall outside their union reach. The PTA felt like their role in education already provided for parental involvement. All of the education establishment voiced concern that “non-educated” or “non-professional” educators would be running schools without credentials normally seen in the public school system. The professional educators believed that would be a formula for disaster. 

There were parents and members of the task force who spoke in favor of the bill. For the most part, I and the other supporters were able to address the concerns raised by the education establishment. 

Since it was a pilot of eight schools, it was a controlled environment and all of those concerns could be monitored. I was able to fend off several unfriendly amendments. After being on my feet at the podium for 2 ½ hours of grueling testimony and questions and answers, in front of a largely unfriendly crowd, the committee voted on the substitute bill, and it passed out with a one vote margin. 

The adopted act (1Substitute HB145) provided for a pilot of up to eight charter schools. A charter school could be proposed by any individual or group of individuals including parents or guardians of students, teachers or any other interested parties. An existing school could be converted to a charter school. Parochial schools and home schools were not eligible. Applicants applied to the State Board of Education and proposals were also to be reviewed by the local school district where the school would be located. 

Any student residing in Utah was eligible to attend a charter school. The legislation provided for a lottery process if enrollment exceeded available seats. The legislation also contained requirements for charter schools and the items that were required in the chartering document. Each charter school would also be required to submit an annual report to the State Board of Education. 

To allow for greater flexibility and to foster a “laboratory of innovation” at each school, the legislation contained a provision allowing a charter school to seek a waiver from a board rule that inhibited the mission of the school. The original funding formula that was settled on by the task force allowed for the state portion of funding to follow the student and required the state board to develop a formula requiring the student’s home school district to transfer one half of the district portion of the funding to the charter school. 

On February 27, 1998, the legislation was heard on the House floor. The floor debate lasted over 90 minutes and again I had to defend the bill from several unfriendly amendments. Once debate ended, the House voted 48-24 with 3 absent to pass the bill. 

Because it was late in the session, there was no Senate committee hearing on the bill. It went straight to the floor for debate the same day it passed the House, February 27, 1998. Howard Stephenson, the Senate sponsor, did a masterful job of presenting the bill and answering questions. The bill passed the Senate on a 15-9 vote with 5 absent. 

That innocuously numbered bill—the New Century Schools Act—was advanced to the Governor’s Office for signature, and I signed it into law on March 20, 1998, creating the first eight charter schools in Utah—the beginning point for structural change. 

While we all worked hard to create a pathway for the charter school effort in Utah, Brian Allen and Howard Stephenson deserve extra recognition, especially Brian. In the next election, the education community recruited a candidate to run against him and Brian was narrowly defeated. There were other local issues involved, but there is no question his courage was displayed at a price. However, time has proven he made a significant contribution. I signed the bill authorizing charter schools a quarter century ago. Since then, the charter movement has taken root in Utah. The system of governance for charter schools has evolved. There is now a separate public-school board that oversees these public schools—the Utah State Charter School Board (SCSB), created by the legislature in 2004. The SCSB’s 2023 annual report reflects that the number of charter schools in Utah has grown from the original eight to 126 schools. In total, 78,782 students attend charter schools, eleven percent of the total school age population in Utah. It is clear this concept has been successful in attracting students.(6)

Not every charter school has been a success, nor can it be demonstrated that the academic achievement of charter schools, as a category, are significantly better than other public schools. However, what can be said is that parents like having the option and often feel better served. 

Researchers from the University of Utah’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy conducted one of the earliest studies of Utah charter school performance, comparing student achievement in charter schools to that of traditional public schools from 2004 to 2009—the first decade of existence for charter schools in Utah. 

The researchers concluded that Utah charter schools did not seem to be a better solution in addressing issues of low performance. But their assessment had caveats and urged future research to examine the distribution of effective charter schools and identify the most effective schools, including by mission and successful practices. They suggested, too, that ongoing research look at academic and non-academic outcomes beyond their own study’s focus on state administered criterion reference tests. 

“For example, many parents in Utah choose charter schools not because of their overall academic performance. Instead, they choose charters because of issues related to their child’s anticipated academic success and safety, perceived school or teacher innovation, access to decision-making and control, and schools with children more similar to the characteristics of their child, and convenience,” the study said. “Moreover, even if charter schools do not perform better than TPSs, they may still be perceived as a more attractive choice if students are better matched with a particular charter school mission than their assigned public schools.”(7) 

More currently, the 2023 annual report of the State Charter School Board confirmed that charter schools on average performed lower on each state accountability test than district schools, especially in math, and remained about two percent lower on English language arts assessments versus school districts. 

At the same time, the SCSB said, the annual rankings of the top high schools in each state, conducted by US News & World Report, showed charter high schools dominating Utah’s top ten list, including the number-one ranked high school in Utah—Beehive Academy in Sandy—and the next five highest ranked: Intech Collegiate Academy in Logan; Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (NUAMES) in Layton; the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (AMES) in Salt Lake City; Itineris Early College High School in West Jordan: and the Karl G Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon. 

Four of those schools have their origins in another key initiative from my administration—the push to accelerate engineering, tech, and STEM graduates from Utah’s colleges and universities by starting at the high school level and fostering collaboration and integration with higher education. The engineering initiative in 2001–2002 was among my most consequential endeavors as governor, with impacts continuing to this day.

High Tech and Early College High Schools 

While the legislation authorizing charter schools passed, the controversy was not over. Regulations had to be developed by the state school board to determine how charters would be awarded and governed. It was slow and difficult. Issues about the criteria for granting the charters, oversight, governance, and supervision had to be developed. Those making the decisions often had an ideological objection to the concept. However, it slowly became airborne. And just two years later, I was able to provide a second boost. 

I had long held the belief that Utah’s best economic opportunity was to become a technology center. A former Utahn who had become a legend in Silicon Valley, Adobe founder John Warnock, helped me understand the link between technology leadership and the number of engineering graduates the state produced. I concluded we needed a moon shot if we were to change our trajectory. The moon-shot goal: Doubling the number of engineering graduates produced at Utah’s universities and colleges in the next five years. 

To plan the Utah Engineering Initiative, I assembled members of the technology community and leaders from higher education and the legislature, incorporating nearly every college and university in the state. The plan included money to build new and bigger engineering buildings. It involved hiring more and better faculty. However, we also needed to have more students coming out of Utah high schools qualified to apply for admission in a demanding engineering program at a university level. Injecting change into a large statewide system is highly challenging and takes time. 

Drawing on knowledge gained from the formation and development of Western Governors University, we decided that rather than fighting through the natural resistance of the status quo, we would use our newly enacted charter school concept to start a system of charter high schools where we could essentially start from scratch, using the principles of education I so passionately believed in. 

My 2001 State of the State speech teed up the idea of the engineering initiative for the first time, and the 2002 State of the State speech drove it home. 

I first teed up the engineering moon-shot idea of engineering and tech-focused charter high schools in my 2001 State of the State speech, saying, “We need fifteen thousand engineering and computer science students by 2005. Our economic future depends on it. To get there, we need to nurture math and technology skills among our students in junior high and high school, especially among young women.” 

In my 2002 State of the State Address, I continued to emphasize these themes. Here are some quotes from that speech: 

The foundation of our economic strategy is continuous improvement in education. Education is our economic fuel. 

In a decade of prosperity, we have invested aggressively in public education. The payoff is smaller class sizes, better-paid teachers, classrooms wired for technology and a shift in emphasis to higher expectations, accountability, and innovation. 

. . . And then we take an even bigger step forward. What I’m proposing is a system of high-tech charter high schools, each named after a Utah scientific entrepreneur, each designed to support one of our economic ecosystems. There will be six of these high-tech high schools, and within 1,000 days the first four will be operational. 

One will be in Salt Lake City, focusing on biotechnology; another, in Weber County, will concentrate on engineering and medical devices. Utah County will have a school specializing in digital media; and a fourth in Logan will specialize in plant and animal genetics. 

Once admitted, students will be able to move among the four schools. And their goal will be to earn both a competency-measured high school diploma and an Associate of Science degree while learning technology through work with industry and higher education mentors. By Day 1,000, approximately 1,250 students will be fast tracking their way into careers that will lift our entire economy.

In between those speeches, we had planned considerably. In the summer of 2001, my education deputy, Gary Carlston, who had so skillfully guided our education policy through the development and passage of charter schools and the beginnings of the engineering initiative, returned to teaching at Utah State University. Not long after, I appointed him to the board of trustees at Snow College. He later became president of Snow College. 

I was able to persuade Rich Kendell, a former Davis County schools superintendent, to join our team, replacing Gary. I had admired Rich for many years. He left public education for a time to pursue private business as a successful developer. Rich brought his considerable passion and reputation, knowledge of education, and his new bona fides in private business to the Governor’s Office at a propitious moment. Rich Kendell was the perfect person to lead the implementation of our engineering initiative. 

He immediately began the design work, joining forces with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided planning money and the promise of more support. 

Because the charters of these schools were granted by the Utah Legislature rather than the state school board or local districts, we were able to move boldly and quickly. The design had a number of key elements: the schools would focus on math, science, and engineering; each school would be attached to a college or university engineering program; and private businesses would partner with students to give them real world experience. 

Additionally, partnering with the Gates Foundation would bring the schools into a network of early college high schools, and students would be advanced on the basis of their competency rather than time. When they could demonstrate readiness, they moved on. Students who finished high school early could start work on an associate degree. Those who finished the two-year degree before graduating from high school would be given scholarships for their junior and senior years in college. 

We had the funding necessary. The schools would operate using the best available technology, hire unconventional leaders, and be governed by local appointed boards. Progress would be competency based. And as chartered schools, they could aggressively seek to individualize and innovate according to need. 

According to Rich Kendell, the early college/high-tech high school concept emerged in Utah at the collision of several movements and ideas that had been forming for some time. The charter school movement provided a basis for new schools to develop with new governance structures and with different approaches to curriculum and programs. A high-tech school was possible as a single focus under a charter that may have been more difficult in a more conventional public school district. A focus on high tech—or STEM, as it’s commonly known now—was consistent with the ongoing effort to double the number of engineering graduates in the state and to advance the idea that Utah could emerge as a major research and development center for high-tech companies. Trying to take advantage of the fact that many students were showing competency in core math and science subjects during their high school years posed an opportunity to advance them into college-level subjects earlier. Not all of these factors emerged in a neat sequential order, but the ideas and energy were there to create some new schools that capitalized on these emerging developments.  

A major impetus for developing new schools was provided by the Gates Foundation, which had identified the reform and improvement of K-12 education as one of its major goals, especially for disadvantaged students. Early on, exploratory talks were initiated by my office, and then more detailed plans evolved with Tom Vander Ark, who was heading education efforts for the Foundation. Tom had unexpectedly been delayed in Utah for several days due to travel complications caused by the 9/11 disaster and had stayed during that time at the Governor’s Mansion, spending considerable time with Rich Kendell outlining an early-college proposal for Utah. 

Ultimately the plan was finalized and submitted to the Foundation. A planning grant was approved to initiate the early college and high-tech high schools in Utah. The grant was for $3.65 million and allowed teams at several sites to create the schools consistent with general features outlined by the Gates Foundation but adapted to the circumstances and capabilities at each specific site. 

Utah’s Original Six Technology- and Engineering-Focused High Schools

The six high schools conceived as part of our partnership with the Gates Foundation did not begin simultaneously but were added as the planning grant rolled out to several potential sites. The first was a school proposed in the Salt Lake City area to be located in unused space at Cottonwood High School. The degree of interest and collaboration cannot be overstated. The Granite School district provided space for the school and made plans for students at the new school to take some classes at Cottonwood High that were beyond the scope of the new school—for example, choir, Chinese, and so on. The new school needed a name and leadership as well, and a remarkable veteran teacher and administrator, Al Church, was recruited and appointed.  

“The man with the hammer is Governor Mike Leavitt.”

Al knew how to recruit a development team and to build a school from the bottom up. He had an incredible ability to connect with students, parents, teachers, and the larger support community. Combine these talents with wit, humor, patience—and sometimes impatience—and you have the beginning of a major success story. As the organization developed, a name for the school was discussed and settled: The Academy for Math, Engineering, and Science (AMES). This acronym identifies one of the better-known schools in the state and one of the better-known schools in the national network of Gates-supported, early-college high schools. Business leaders and community officials signed up for an advisory board, and support rolled in from all sides.  

Illustrative of this collaborative spirit, my former chief of staff Charlie Johnson called early in the process and offered six corporate offices and a board room for the AMES planning group. The offices were located at the Huntsman Corporation headquarters. For a group of educators accustomed to stacking books on shelves supported by cinder blocks, the Huntsman offices were quite a change. A second business leader, Jack Sunderlage, a veteran of the IT world, volunteered his help and later became part of the planning/development team. Through his contacts, he quickly developed support for the new school and amassed literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in donated computers, networking hardware and software, and more. The new school had to be a success if the other schools were to follow. A lot was riding on the early success of AMES.  

Rich Kendell visited other proposed sites, and fortunately, word of the early success and development of AMES preceded him. In every instance, a college or university president, a school district superintendent or board president, several prominent business leaders, and representatives of the business community pledged their support for a early-college/high-tech high school in their community. Zeal for the schools was palpable, and occasionally humorous. One mayor instructed the local school superintendent to lock the conference room door so that my deputy could not leave until a commitment was made. 

On June 3, 2003, KSL-TV reported on the breaking of ground at Cottonwood High School to accommodate AMES. “The man with the hammer is Governor Mike Leavitt, officially beginning the retrofit of Cottonwood High School’s south end. About 20,000 feet of the campus will be transformed this summer into an emporium of scientific learning.” 

The old metal shop at the school was designated the “skunk works,” or workshop, where students would brainstorm, design, and test new projects. The school’s curriculum director joked that the building needed a hole in the ceiling to launch the rockets students would be designing and testing. 

Al Church was quoted as well: “There probably won’t be a hole in the roof physically, but we hope we’ll be moving outside the boundaries of the way public ed in the past has had to do business,” he said. 

“As a public charter school, tuition is free,” KSL noted, “and there is already a waiting list for this fall.”(8)

Over time, planning grants were made to other locations and additional high-tech/early-college high schools emerged. These grants were for a period of one year and allowed a team to work out the details of the new school. Everything was on the table: recruiting students, securing space, hiring teachers, developing partnerships with all participating parties, selecting vendors for supplies and equipment, developing a specific curriculum that fit into a STEM framework, and much more. 

One by one, more schools followed on the heels of AMES: Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (NUAMES), with campuses in Ogden and Layton, and an affiliation with Weber State University; Itineris Early College High School in West Jordan, affiliated with Salt Lake Community College; Intech Collegiate High School in North Logan, affiliated with Utah State University; Utah County Academy of Sciences (UCAS) in Provo and Orem, affiliated with Utah Valley University. SUCCESS Academy in Cedar City, affiliated with Southern Utah University; and SUCCESS Academy in St. George, affiliated with Utah Tech University (formerly Dixie State University). The first-to-open school, AMES, is partnered with the University of Utah.

Top Marks

The original high-tech high schools are consistently listed in the top ten highest quality schools in the state by multiple assessment and ranking entities. This has been true for virtually every year over the last ten years. The schools have high retention rates, excellent student test scores, and high numbers of students who go on to post-secondary certificate or college degree programs. This level of success is simply extraordinary. 

Two decades later and the initial schools have persisted with some adjustments over time. Each remains robust and of high quality. Each is still an early college high school; however, the possibility of moving more quickly into and through higher education has not been as important as the quality of the experience and the academic results. The schools also have remained effective in being open admissions and have had impressive records for enrolling women and students of color. This was a goal that was important to everyone, but it was a critical factor for getting and continuing the Gates grant. 

Collaboration was essential, too, to the success of the new schools, and importantly, the partnership with a local college or university was especially fruitful. Few schools in the state, whether traditional, charter, or private, can boast of similar close working relationships with a higher education partner. An example of this is at Weber State University and NUAMES. NUAMES occupies a major share of a new WSU campus facility located on the Clearfield campus—a far cry from the beginning space in a Clearfield shopping strip.

Sixteen years after the first high-tech school opened, I gave an address at the Utah Technology Innovation Summit in Salt Lake City on April 1, 2019, posing the same three questions to the gathering that state and local leaders had asked themselves in the early 1990s. First, how do we protect quality of life as the state grows; second, how do we meet our workforce’s needs and attract qualified workers with the competency to use and develop the technologies of the future; and third, what are Utah’s best economic opportunities and economic beachheads, or industry sectors where natural advantages can be invested to build serious comparative advantages? 

The engineering initiative and resulting high-tech high schools were an example of formulating an economic vision and then executing on it, I told the group, and urged them to do the same. Forty-thousand students have graduated with engineering or computer science degrees from Utah’s system of higher education since the day in the early 2000s when Adobe Systems CEO John Warnock first chewed me out in Silicon Valley for Utah’s complacency and lack of investment in tech and engineering education prior to that point. 

Those graduates and new engineers have fueled a remarkable story of technological growth in Utah over two decades. 

Warnock wrote his own op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune a few months before my speech at the Tech Summit, extolling the engineering initiative and admonishing Utah leaders to continue the investment. 

“Now emulated by more than a dozen states, Utah’s initiative, which appropriates funding to grow engineering and computer science programs, has increased the number of graduates that the Utah System of Higher Education turns out from 1,375 when the Initiative began to 3,283 last year,” Warnock said. 

It has been Utah’s best hope for building a technical workforce, essential to a robust, diversified high-tech economy built on a foundation of Utah-bred engineering talent, he said. And now is not the time to lose focus. 

“From 2016 to 2017 alone, tech-related job postings in Utah increased by an astonishing 42 percent. Net tech employment in Utah is 135,000, and the economic impact of the tech industry is an estimated $14.9 billion in direct contribution to the state’s bottom line. That’s 10.25 percent of the state GDP.”(9)

We learned a great deal from the engineering initiative and the ongoing success of the tech high schools. Among our learnings: 

Lesson one: Governors can nudge a lot of good policy work, especially if they have a little cash to help move local efforts. And partnering with a national organization like the Gates Foundation proved to be critically important. Utah was drawn into a network of leaders and resources that had never been imagined before.  

Lesson two: Even the best of initiatives need room to grow and develop based on local circumstances and opportunities. The SUCCESS academies (as we called them) in Cedar City and St. George were high-tech/early college schools but included a focus on forensic science and medicine. This worked well for them, but perhaps was not a template for Intech in North Logan. The Gates Foundation staff worried about such local efforts, but in the end realized that one cannot argue effectively with the enthusiasm, expertise, and success of slightly different designs that work.  

Lesson three: Those who try to be bold and innovative in their work must be incredibly well-connected and networked. The efforts and contributions of all parties are important: public education, higher education, business, civic organizations, and sponsoring communities.  

Also, there is no substitute for those in education who find sheer delight in working with young people and enjoying the process of steering students to exciting ideas and projects. To visit one of these schools is to find a goldmine of active and inquisitive learners, and to see faculty in flannel shirts hovering over a student project that has been months in the making.   

Lesson four: A rigorous curriculum is important for students who plan to work in STEM fields. Gifted teachers are essential in both the K-12 and higher education levels, and hands-on learning helps make some topics more understandable.  

Rich Kendell described a recent visit to a high-tech high school that fell on a national holiday. Most of the faculty were there collaborating on lesson plans and future projects. Students were also in the skunk works project area, working on a robot that greeted Rich at the door. “I asked the robot if it could dance, and a dance followed. The rumba, I think,” Rich said. “I had a friend with me who wanted to see this school, and after about an hour of observing and participating wondered if he could sign up immediately.” 

Creating the Utah College of Applied Technology 

On the day I announced my candidacy for governor in 1991, I visited an applied technology center, an educational facility where job skills are taught to both high school students and adults. I was met by Senator Haven Barlow, a giant in Utah legislative history, who had served in both the Utah House and Senate for a combined forty-two years. My father had served alongside him as a senator for twelve of those years. His endorsement of my candidacy was a significant development in my quest to be elected governor. 

The Davis Applied Technology Center (ATC) where we met was in Senator Barlow’s district. Holding the announcement of his endorsement at the ATC gave Barlow a chance to talk, not just about my candidacy but also about applied technology centers. He was widely known as the guardian of ATCs in the legislature. It was not lost on me that the price of getting Haven’s support was committing to become a supporter of ATCs in Utah as well. In fact, I was already a fan of ATCs because of my work on the Education Strategic Plan task force and the Board of Regents. 

ATCs were just plain smart. Not every student is well adapted for college. Likewise, many, if not most, jobs in society need specific skills training, not a college education. The world needs plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, equipment repair people, medical techs, hairdressers, and electricians. The applied technology centers represented Utah’s efforts to provide training for those jobs. 

On the day Senator Barlow and I stood at the Davis ATC, there were a total of nine ATCs in Utah. Each had a specific service territory. A year earlier, the name had been changed from Applied Vocational Centers to Applied Technology Centers. It was thought to make the training more attractive. Prior to being applied vocational centers, they were called “trade schools.” 

The physical facilities of the ATCs were large and sophisticated. Most of them were located close to high schools so they could conveniently be accessed during the school day by students. At night, and to a limited degree during the day, adults would use the ATCs to gain skills training related to specific trades or jobs. Employers would contract with the ATCs to train their employees in specific ways. 

While this dual use by public school students and adults seemed efficient, it also created significant governance issues. Clearly, local school boards had jurisdiction over the K-12 students using the facilities. However, the post-secondary mission of training people after high school fell to the Board of Regents in the higher education space. This tension was exacerbated by the fact that the applied technology centers in many areas of the state were also community colleges. 

The first such ATC was organized in the late 1970s in the Uintah Basin—an effort by the local school district to meet the needs of local employers. Some regions of the state had no ATC at all because the training provided was being done by other entities. But in order to provide comparable services, the Utah system of higher education by the early 1990s began to get involved with what came to be called Applied Technology Center Service Regions (ATCSRs)—changing the emphasis from “vocational centers” to “applied technology” to better describe the purpose: providing education below a college associate degree level that prepares people for employment. 

A figurative and political tug of war ensued, with the higher education system and public education system hashing over which should have jurisdiction, with business stakeholders weighing in as well. I helped with the negotiating process, which included the presidents of the ATCs and industry representatives. The result was Utah College of Applied Technology (UCAT), an institution of higher education that assumed jurisdiction on September 1, 2001, encompassing the state’s nine technology centers and making them stand-alone applied technology colleges. With UCAT as the tenth institution in the system, a community college detractor reportedly dubbed the new creation a “ten-headed monster.” 

Former Utah Governor Norm Bangerter, who was heading up the Salt Lake–Tooele ATC at the time, became chairman of the board of UCAT, which had its own board of trustees under the new structure, but ultimately answered to the Board of Regents. Gregory Fitch was hired as UCAT’s first president. 

Name changes, jurisdictional disputes, governance, and mission ambiguity had caused whiplash within the technical education system before and would again in the years following the UCAT restructuring and my time in office. 

But my thoughts at the time, as governor and as a supporter of ATCs, conformed to my overall vision for public education and higher education. For instance, I loved the fact that ATCs were competency based, and it was a no-brainer to me that applied technology learners should have the same opportunity to transfer credits or continue on from an ATC into a college system if they wanted to, just like students who advanced to college early or transferred from a community college to a larger four-year institution. 

Utah’s colleges were facing large populations of students who would attend for a year and then drop out. Those students still needed a particular skill set or job certification, but it appeared that many did not have the time or money to obtain it at a college or university. Meantime, industries needed trained workers, consistently and expeditiously. 

There was a cultural bias as well. Parents envisioned their children growing up and going off to college. Prestige and earning potential were wrapped up in those parental dreams. Aerospace engineers are terrific, but what about the kid that dreams of becoming an aircraft mechanic and could be working at that particular high-demand job in a fraction of the time? 

During a visit to one of the ATCs when I was governor, I came across a young man sitting alone reading a furnace manual and asked him about it. “I like reading this,” he said, “Romeo and Juliet, not so much.” Yet I knew someday that kid might change and want something different, and we needed to have a way for him to matriculate using his skills without having to check all the boxes to get a credit-based degree. 

The UCAT realignment was meant to bring a bit of order and more clear-cut control to a system that had been more loosely configured. The business community wanted more control over the pipeline to future workers and therefore pushed for a system independent of higher education and public education. 

UCAT provided more independence, although the Board of Regents remained at the top of the hierarchy. To me, job training was post-secondary. Roughly 32,000 students were typically enrolled yearly at ATCs—roughly 75 percent of them adults seeking new skills to obtain employment or to upgrade current employability skills. The overwhelming majority were part-time rather than full-time students. 

Another feature of UCAT was its Custom Fit program, which worked with Utah companies to address their need for skills enhancement among incumbent employees. In turn, the companies utilizing the program provided a fifty percent or more company cash contribution to the cost of the program. 

I had left the governor’s position in 2003 for federal service and was no longer engaged in the politics or educational policymaking of the state. But I remained interested, particularly in how the mission, governance, and operation of technical education—along with public and higher education—changed or evolved over time. 

UCAT continued under its foundational format for several years before some heartburn arose from the higher education side over UCAT’s authority to bestow a handful of associate-type degrees known as an associate of applied technology degree. Around the same time, some ATC programs began to be merged into other degree-granting institutions, such as the Central Applied Technology College in Richfield being absorbed into Snow College, and later the Southeast ATC merging first into the College of Eastern Utah, which itself later merged into Utah State University. 

In the wake of these moves and disputes, the legislature reconfigured the system again in 2009, removing UCAT from under the umbrella of the Board of Regents and making it a separate, independent system accountable to the legislature and governor directly. The associate of applied technology degrees were nixed as part of the shuffle, and the Salt Lake portion of the Salt Lake–Tooele ATC was rolled into Salt Lake Community. 

The voucher debate returned to the 2023 Utah legislature, and during a year when lawmakers had nearly $2 billion of new money to allocate, a bill was passed creating a system where state money can be spent at private schools. The initial amount is $8,000 per student. 

There are still multiple reasons to question the long-term benefits of this policy on the state’s efforts to educate every child. Much will have been learned, however, from charter schools, and the risks are not as high as they would be with twenty-five years of experience now with charter schools. Separately, but no less legitimately, Utah currently grapples with concerns about social media use and its negative impacts on school-age children and has taken bold legal steps to protect Utah kids. 

An innate tension lies at the heart of educational governance: It seems some parents want to subcontract the education of their children to public schools. At the same time, they care intensely about their children and the value systems they are raised within and want to control what their children are taught. This has long been the conundrum for education policymaking, and the most basic truism since the beginnings of representative government and compulsory education. There are no politics more local than school politics.



1. Raymond M. Hughes, William H. Lancelot, and John Louis Holmes, 1946. Education, America’s Magic. Iowa State College Press.

Rod Decker, Utah Politics, the Elephant in the Room, Signature Books, 2019.

2. Connor Sanders, “Utah is not last in the nation for per-pupil spending, for the first time in decades,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 18 May 2021.

3. Mike Leavitt, “Gearing up with Technology: A Centennial Challenge to Educators,” Address to the State Board of Regents, the State Board of Education, and the Utah State Legislature at Southern Utah University, 14 July 1993. 

4. THEJournal, “US West and Utah Education Network Bring the Internet and Video-based Education to Utah Students,” 1 November 1999.

5. THEJournal, “US West and Utah Education Network Bring the Internet and Video-based Education to Utah Students,” 1 November 1999.

6. Utah State Charter School Board, Annual Report 2022,

7. Yongmei Ni, Andrea K. Rorrer, “Twice Considered: Charter Schools and Student Achievement in Utah,” Economics of Education Review, Vol. 31, Iss. 5., October 2012.

8. Sammy Linebaugh, “First High-tech High School Breaks Ground,”, 

9. John Warnock, “John Warnock: Utah’s Engineering Initiative has boosted state’s high-tech boom,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 31 January 2019. 


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