Rebellion Against Federal Education Law Reignites in Utah

 
For the second year, U.S. Department of Education officials urgently are trying to quell a rebellion by Utah state lawmakers who are poised to adopt legislation that significantly challenges requirements of the federal education law.

The NCLB act threatens to penalize schools that fail to improve standardized test scores annually for all racial and demographic groups; it has come under criticism from multiple states for intruding on state education programs and imposing extra costs.

In the toughest slap at NCLB this year, Utah's House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Tuesday (Feb. 15) that calls for the state's own testing regimen to take precedence over NCLB testing mandates. The bill was sponsored by Republican state Rep. Margaret Dayton, who last year led a nationally watched effort in Utah that threatened to opt out of Bush's signature school reform law.

The measure now goes to the GOP-controlled Senate, where it already has gained the endorsement of the leadership. Adding to federal officials' discomfort is that Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) threatened during his 2004 campaign to ignore NCLB even if it meant losing $100 million in federal education money. Huntsman spokesperson Tammy Kikuchi said the governor is supportive of Dayton's measure but has not yet announced what he'll do if it reaches his desk.

In response to Utah's latest actions, a team of federal education officials has been working to appease state officials by negotiating more flexibility in how the state complies with NCLB, said Utah Superintendent of Schools Patti Harrington.

"We had these same conversations last year and got nowhere," Harrington said. "We're asking for tremendous flexibility now, and I think we're beginning to see movement in our direction."

Tim Bridgewater, Huntsman's deputy for public education, said he expects to announce by Friday an agreement between Utah and the federal government that will include concessions in major areas of the law, such as "highly qualified" teacher standards that many rural teachers now fail to meet.

"I think that it's fair to say the bill that Margaret Dayton has run has gotten attention, from other states as well as the (U. S. Education) Department, and they're sincerely looking at it and considering its ramifications and what it means in terms of how to best administer No Child Left Behind," Bridgewater said.

Similar to Utah's 2004 efforts, Dayton's legislation is thrusting Utah to the forefront of a national debate over whether states should be given more flexibility in how they comply with the federal law, which attempts to close achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and minority students.

Education officials in Utah and other states have been arguing with the federal government over how the law should be applied since NCLB was signed by President Bush in 2002. Up to now, federal officials have compromised in a couple of areas but steadfastly have denied requests by state officials to substitute their own teacher- and school-quality standards for those spelled out in NCLB.

Instead of rejecting the federal law outrightly at a loss of millions of dollars in federal education funds Dayton's legislation builds on provisions in NCLB that seem to allow the U.S. secretary of education to waive federal requirements in favor of state education statutes. The bill orders school officials to follow Utah's "proven system of student accountability" until the federal government fully funds NCLB or grants Utah a waiver.

The bill also relies on a section of NCLB (Section 9527) that stipulates states don't have to carry out provisions of the law if federal money is lacking. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) estimated last year that the federal education law was costing states $10 billion more than provided by the U.S. government; federal officials, though, insisted they were providing enough funds.

"Utah is leading this new trend where they're emphasizing the state accountability system and working off the language in NCLB that says nothing in this act forces a state to spend its own money or change its curriculum," said NCSL education analyst Scott Young.

Since state legislatures across the country went into session last month, lawmakers in nine states (Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia, Vermont, and Utah) have introduced bills challenging aspects of the law. More bills are expected, Young said.

Some states are following Utah's lead by using language such as waiver provisions within the NCLB act to emphasize a state's own accountability system as an alternative to NCLB, Young said. Connecticut and Virginia school officials applied for waivers last month, and Minnesota lawmakers are considering a bill that would order state education officials to seek a waiver from "ineffective provisions" of NCLB.

"What's great about that is you're using language within (NCLB). You're requesting waivers that are allowed to be granted. You're doing everything -- quote-unquote -- to the letter of the law. Therefore you shouldn't be risking federal funding," Young said.

Officials in several states have said that since U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was sworn into office last month, her department has demonstrated increased willingness to give states more flexibility in meeting NCLB requirements.

For example, the Education Department resolved an uproar in North Dakota earlier this month by approving the qualifications of 4,000 teachers who feared they would not meet the federal law's "highly qualified" teacher requirements. Highly qualified teacher mandates kick in next year and require that teachers in core subject areas math, reading and science have a bachelor's degree or demonstrate expertise in each subject they teach.

Utah Superintendent Harrington said she expects the federal government to extend the same flexibility North Dakota received to Utah and other states that face similar challenges.

"The feds are beginning to understand that teachers are hard to find in states with large rural populations," she said. "Most of them have to teach in three or four subjects, and it's absurd to force them to get master's degrees in each area."

The negotiations under way in Utah are a repeat of last year's tense standoff between federal education officials and the Utah Legislature. Last year's revolt in Utah ended when Dayton withdrew her proposal for further study after the state was threatened with the loss of more than $106 million in federal school funds.

This year, however, Dayton says she has no intention of backing down and predicts the legislation will pass and be signed by Huntsman.

"When you have the support of everybody, from the UEA (Utah Education Association) to the governor's office to unanimous support from both political parties in the state House, you know that's going to send a strong message to Congress and the federal government," Dayton said.

 
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