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Utah Lawmakers Pass Bill Flouting NCLB

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The Utah legislature passed a bill April 19 that would put the state’s education laws ahead of the No Child Left Behind Act, an act of defiance against a federal law that lawmakers in the heavily Republican state call an unfunded mandate.

The measure—which drew large majorities in both houses and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, is expected to sign—would give state officials the authority to ignore provisions of the federal law that conflict with state education standards or cost the state money.

The Utah legislature’s move means the state could lose about $76 million annually in federal education money, out of about $106 million the state receives under No Child Left Behind, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who wrote a terse evaluation of the measure this week.

“Several of the principles in the bill are fundamentally troublesome, and appear to be designed to provoke noncompliance with federal law and needless confrontation,” she wrote in an April 18 letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who had requested an evaluation of the state measure.

The state likely would lose federal money for Title I students, teacher training, and parental-choice programs. Districts that serve the highest numbers of disadvantaged students likely would see the most impact.

David L. Shreve, a lobbyist with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said Utah’s measure would not have an immediate impact, because the state has not yet acted to supplant any federal laws with its state standards. The NCSL has repeatedly called for more flexibility and more funding to carry out the mandates in the No Child Left Behind law.

Utah legislators “haven’t really done anything yet, except to say they intend to do something,” Mr. Shreve said. “It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes before they take action and before the Department of Education has a reaction.”

Other states likely will watch the situation in Utah unfold, Mr. Shreve said, adding that it was impossible to predict whether Utah’s action would lead other states to snub the federal law’s provisions. Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, announced earlier this month that his state plans to sue the U.S. Department of Education over the testing mandates in the sweeping federal law.

Utah’s saga has lasted more than a year. The chief legislative sponsor, GOP Rep. Margaret Dayton, first introduced a measure that would have rejected all of the state’s federal education funding. ("Utah Lawmaker to Fight NCLB Law,") Dec. 1, 2004.)

Gov. Huntsman and other state officials had been in contact with President Bush and officials at the Education Department leading up to the April 19 legislative special session, but were unable to come to a compromise.

The Education Department was expected to comment on the bill later on April 20.

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  • An April 18 press release from the Connecticut Attorney General's Office reiterates the state's intent to file lawsuit against the government. "Unfunded mandates are flagrantly illegal under No Child Left Behind and must be eliminated," the release states.
  • Read the April 5, 2005 press release from the Education Department detailing the government's reaction to news of the impending lawsuit from the state of Connecticut.
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