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Published in Print: February 18, 2004, as Utah House Softens Stand on Federal Education Law

Utah House Softens Stand on Federal Education Law

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Utah's House of Representatives backed down last week from its threat to forsake $103 million in federal aid, but said the state shouldn't spend any of its own money on complying with the No Child Left Behind Act.

In a widely watched debate that could alter the direction of President Bush's top education priority, the majority-Republican chamber passed a bill Feb. 10 that would direct the state education department to take money under the 2- year-old law, but stop spending on the law's requirements once the federal funds run out.

The state measure, if enacted, would likely allow Utah to meet the technical requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, while leaving it short of the federal law's larger goal of raising the achievement of the neediest students, state schools Superintendent Steven O. Laing said late last week.

The version of the bill that had passed the Utah House's education committee earlier in the month would have withdrawn the state from the No Child Left Behind Act completely, forfeiting the $103 million the state receives in formula grants from its programs.

States' costs in meeting the federal law's mandates have been the subject of heated debate in legislatures this winter. The law requires states to test students in grades 3-8, and once in high school, in reading and mathematics. States also must establish accountability systems that identify schools failing to make adequate progress toward having all students reach proficiency in those subjects by 2014.

Members of the education committee of the state House said the federal law represented an unfunded mandate—meaning it costs the state more to comply than the federal government provides the state—and voted unanimously to support a bill to reject both the requirements of the law and the money that comes from it. ("Utah Panel Votes to Quit No Child Left Behind Act," Feb. 11, 2004.)

Margaret Dayton

State Rep. Margaret Dayton, the Republican chairwoman of the education committee, sponsored the original bill. Ms. Dayton voted for the revisions to her bill.

When the full House debated that bill last week, members agreed to water it down so the state could accept the federal aid, but not be forced to spend any of its own money on the law, which reauthorized the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The bill passed the House by 64-8.

A U.S. Department of Education official said that the state could successfully comply with the No Child Left Behind Act without tapping state funds.

The law gives states more money than ever in the 39- year history of the ESEA, according to Ronald J. Tomalis, a counselor to Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

For example, he said, it allows states to reserve 4 percent of their Title I money to improve low-performing schools. In 1994, the ESEA set that percentage at 2 percent.

Utah, Mr. Tomalis added, received $5 million in federal aid this fiscal year, specifically to help the state upgrade its testing system, from a grant program that was added to the ESEA by the No Child Left Behind law.

"I believe there is ample money to target resources to the schools in Utah," said Mr. Tomalis, who met with Utah legislators and educators in Salt Lake City on Feb. 6 in response to the initial committee-passed bill. "I do not anticipate that there's going to be a problem" with the state's compliance with the law, he said.

Mr. Laing, the state's top school official, said Utah would have enough federal aid to meet the letter of the federal law if the House bill becomes law, but probably not enough to reach the law's goal of raising all students to the proficient level.

"We can comply with the specifics of No Child Left Behind as far as the technical requirements," he said. "But it would be very, very difficult to meet the moral obligations to increase services for students who have learning deficiencies" without spending state or local dollars to do so.

March Deadline

The bill is awaiting action in the state Senate, which was likely to vote on it this week.

Gov. Olene S. Walker has previously complained that the No Child Left Behind Act requires the state to spend too much to be in compliance. She also said she was reluctant to forgo $103 million of ESEA funding.

Ms. Walker is "watching the bill closely," but she doesn't plan to take a position on it until a final version reaches her desk, according to Amanda Covington, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor.

The ultimate fate of the bill is likely to be known soon. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on March 4.

Vol. 23, Issue 23, Page 30

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