Utah Considers Opting Out of No Child Left Behind
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Heavily Republican Utah is among a handful of states edging closer to rejecting federal education dollars to escape compliance with President Bush's sweeping No Child Left Behind program.
Utah, Vermont, North Dakota, Indiana and Ohio all passed measures in 2003 requiring studies to figure out how much it costs them to comply with the federal education law's testing and reporting requirements, and whether such costs are worth the benefits.
Many Republicans have been leery of openly criticizing No Child Left Behind, a top domestic accomplishment for President Bush. But the law is causing such headaches in schools that the criticism is coming from both political parties.
Among the Utah Republicans involved in the NCLB debate are heavy hitters with political influence both in the state and in Washington, D.C.: Utah House Speaker Martin Stephens and state Rep. Kory Holdaway. Both Republicans hold key positions in the National Conference of State Legislatures. Stephens, who is expected to run for Utah's governorship, is the NCSL president; Holdaway chairs the conference's education committee.
With Stephens at the helm, NCSL this month assembled a task force to study possible legislative changes to No Child Left Behind after discussions with the White House indicated the administration was not willing to change the law.
Holdaway, a special education teacher, has particular concerns about the law's impact on disabled students and said he thinks Congress will have to rework it. "No Child Left Behind is a great rallying cry, but at the same time, not every student is going to be able to meet grade-level at graduation," Holdaway told Stateline.org at the December NCSL meeting in Washington, D.C.
As part of its cost analysis study, Utah expects to know by the end of January how many federal dollars it would lose by walking away from the federal education law, R. Michael Kjar, deputy director of Utah's Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, told Stateline.org.
Utah's state lawmakers will use the results of the study when they take up House Bill 43, which would allow the state to "opt out" of complying with the law. State Rep. Margaret Dayton (R) who chairs the state's House Education Committee, introduced the measure Dec. 17. The Legislative General Session begins in January. "No Child Left Behind is a huge bill with thousands of pages of information and requirements, and I think there needs to be a very full and serious public discussion to understand it," Dayton told Stateline.org in a telephone interview.
Utah wants to know how rejecting federal education funds for poor students under No Child Left Behind, called Title I funds, might affect other federal education dollars the state gets. And there will be an impact, according to a top U.S. Department of Education official. The amount of federal money a state gets under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, for example, is "predicated on Title I dollars flowing into the state," Laurie M. Rich, the department's assistant secretary for intergovernmental and interagency affair, told state lawmakers during a panel session at the December NCSL conference.
If a state does not get any Title I money, then it is unclear how much it will get under the drug-free school program, Rich said, adding that the department has yet to receive a "formal query" from state officials on that question.
It's not just costs that have states mulling pulling out of No Child Left Behind, but concerns about litigation, said Art Coleman, an attorney with Nixon-Peabody in Washington, D.C., who specializes in education issues.
A Pennsylvania school district, for example, apparently has become the first district in the nation to sue a state education department over No Child Left Behind requirements, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Dec. 17. The Reading school district alleged that the state hasn't provided adequate technical and financial assistance for it to comply with the Act, even though the federal law states that the mandates are not supposed to be unfunded.
Kristen Tosh Cowan, a partner with Brustein & Manasevit, a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in education law, said the Pennsylvania case is the first of its kind.
No Child Left Behind could also set states up for "adequacy" lawsuits charging states are not providing enough funds for all students in all schools to acquire skills needed to succeed. At least 18 states are mired in legal challenges over the way they fund education, helped in large part by the data the states supply in complying with No Child Left Behind. New lawsuits filed in 2003 were in Nebraska and Kentucky, and court challenges are expected in Missouri and North Dakota.