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Utah Is Unlikely Fly in Bush’s School Ointment

By Michelle R. Davis — February 08, 2005 9 min read
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Utah state Rep. Margaret Dayton adores President Bush. Her conservative politics line up with his, and one of her favorite memories is of being at an intimate gathering and hearing the president echo her top priorities: God, family, and country.

Yet Rep. Dayton is driving one of Mr. Bush’s biggest education-related headaches. Last year, she led a nationally watched push for Utah to opt out of the No Child Left Behind Act—his signature school reform law. That effort failed only after federal officials traveled to Utah and helped convince lawmakers here that dropping out would cost the state at least $106 million in education aid.

Mrs. Dayton hasn’t given up, though. Like legislators in several other states—many of them fellow Republicans—she sees the law’s raft of prescriptions as encroaching on state and local turf and imposing unwarranted costs. As discontent with the law simmers, Mrs. Dayton is back with a modified proposal. Unanimously approved last week by the state’s House education committee, the plan is sure to draw attention again to Utah and cause additional heartburn in Washington.

Utah state Rep. Margaret Dayton participates in a meeting at the Utah Capitol on Feb. 2. The Republican has garnered national attention for challenging the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“This is very hard for me because I am very supportive of [President Bush], but I just don’t want to follow blindly,” said Mrs. Dayton, who chairs the House education committee, during a recent interview. “To me, this is an issue of states’ rights.”

Her retooled plan calls for the federal education law to take a back seat to the state’s statutes, especially when the two levels of government conflict. Mrs. Dayton’s proposal wouldn’t reject the No Child Left Behind law outright, but it would give school districts the right to ignore federal requirements if state education money must pay for them.

This year’s bill is much more likely to pass than last year’s proposal. It already has support in the GOP-controlled House and Senate. The Utah Office of Education supports it, as does, according to Mrs. Dayton, Gov. John Huntsman Jr., a Republican who took office last month.

Nationwide, states are in their fourth year of implementing the law, an overhaul of the nearly 40-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The NCLB law, signed by President Bush in January 2002, emphasizes accountability for schools’ performance. It calls for regular student testing and imposes penalties on schools and districts that don’t meet annual achievement goals based on the exams. It also includes mandates in areas such as teacher quality.

Utah’s effort last year to reject the federal law was closely monitored by other states mulling their options, and once again, Utah’s actions are being scrutinized.

“As this moves forward,” said David Shreve, an education lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, “a lot of people will be watching.”

‘It Chains Us’

Utah seems an unlikely place to start a revolution against the No Child Left Behind Act. An overwhelmingly Republican state in which Democrats make up just a quarter of the legislature, Utah gave President Bush his largest margin of victory in 2004.

But many Utahans have always felt—dating back to 1847, when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints settled in this desert land hemmed in by the Rocky Mountains—that they should be in charge of their own business.

“I don’t believe that having the federal government dictating to us with all their wisdom will solve anything,” said Rep. David N. Cox, a Republican and a 5th grade teacher. “I’d be willing to lose all that federal money to be free. Ultimately it chains us.”

Rep. Kory M. Holdaway, a Republican and a special education teacher, said that historically, education has been squarely within the purview of the states. “No Child Left Behind is a blanket over all the country,” he said. “It’s an intrusion that I’m baffled by.”

He voted against Rep. Dayton’s opt-out provision last year, however, concluding that the state couldn’t stand the loss of federal dollars.

Even to those who embrace the aims of the law, like Bill Boyle, the editor and publisher of the weekly San Juan Record in rural Monticello, Utah, the No Child Left Behind Act seems like something conceived miles away from real schools.

As an example, Mr. Boyle, who is a few weeks into his new post on the school board for the 2,950- student San Juan school district, points to Whitehorse High School on the Navajo reservation in San Juan County. The high-poverty school is labeled “in need of improvement.”

As a result, the school must bus the 41 students who chose to make the daily, 80-mile round-trip commute to another school. They are some of the brightest students in the school, Mr. Boyle said.

Scoffing at the mandate, he said, “Solutions to local problems need to be local solutions.”

Uproar Last Year

Even in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act was just beginning to reach into classrooms across the country, Rep. Dayton though it was wrong. In particular, she objected to spending the millions of local dollars state officials estimated were needed to implement the new law—especially because close to 70 percent of the state’s land is federally owned and doesn’t contribute to the tax base to help fund schools.

So she introduced the opt-out bill last year. The result was a huge uproar.

“At first, my whole effort was viewed as an irritating gnat by federal officials, who thought I would just go away,” said Mrs. Dayton, a vibrant 55-year-old who, along with her husband, an obstetrician, has 12 children and more than 20 grandchildren

The Orem homemaker, who loves to bake her own rolls and shuns the title of Ms. Dayton because it is too closely associated with the women’s liberation movement, pressed on.

Utah’s 2004 efforts attracted national attention at a time when other legislatures, in states such as Connecticut and Virginia, were debating pulling the ripcord, too. It was also an election year, and the negative attention to one of President Bush’s most prized domestic accomplishments was hardly welcomed by Republican Party officials.

So Washington dispatched a posse from the U.S. Department of Education.

Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, Ronald J. Tomalis, a counselor to then-Secretary Rod Paige, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Ken Meyer all flew in over the frosted peaks of the Wasatch Mountains to answer questions, cajole, coerce, and essentially lobby Utah lawmakers to end the revolt.

It was a full-court press. “They tried to strong-arm us,” said Rep. Cox. “They tried to undermine our opposition with threats of loss of revenue.”

The tense standoff riled many here. “They tried to let us know we didn’t understand the law as clearly as they felt we should,” Rep. Holdaway recalled. “We understood it pretty clearly.”

Prior to the confrontation, the Utah Office of Education had written to the federal Education Department seeking leeway to opt out of certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind law and asking about consequences if it did so. The response was that the state could lose more than $106 million in federal funding.

The Beehive State already has the lowest per-pupil spending level in the country, $5,132, and its schools have some of the highest class sizes, leaving it scratching for every education dollar of its $2.4 billion education budget.

Still, Rep. Dayton’s bill passed unanimously out of the House education committee in January of 2004. The bill’s language was later softened to reflect lawmakers’ concerns about losing the federal money. It instead directed schools to stop spending money on federal requirements when the checks from Washington run out. The revised bill had significant support, but Mrs. Dayton ultimately shelved it after her actions were translated by the national media, in her view, as “Bush-bashing.”

“It was very painful” to put the bill on hold, Mrs. Dayton recalled, thumbing through a well-worn copy of the federal law. “But I didn’t want it to become a big campaign issue.”

Rep. Patricia Jones, a Democrat, said the Washington pressure tactics worked. “It has kind of forced us to be prostitutes for the federal government,” she said.

Alternative Plan

Rep. Dayton’s latest bill builds on a provision in the No Child Left Behind law allowing the U.S. secretary of education to grant states waivers to help them comply. So far, federal officials have been reluctant to grant such waivers. The proposal also relies on a section of the federal law that essentially says that a state doesn’t have to carry out the law if it lacks the federal money to do so.

Mr. Holdaway introduced a companion resolution that emphasizes the goals of Mrs. Dayton’s bill. Both measures say the state’s own accountability system, the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, or U-PASS, should serve as the basis for monitoring local schools, not the No Child Left Behind Act.

The core difference between U-PASS, which is still being fine-tuned, and the No Child Left Behind Act is how they measure student progress. While U-PASS expects every child to make a year’s worth of progress based on individual performance, the No Child Left Behind Act requires every child to reach the same benchmarks regardless of where they start.

U-PASS also requires testing in more grades than does the federal law. The state system doesn’t put as much emphasis on performance by minority groups as the federal law does. Instead, U-PASS looks at a host of factors, including test scores, attendance, and graduation rates, to determine if a school gets a passing grade.

In using U-PASS, Mrs. Dayton said, “we are obeying the spirit of the [federal] law … though we cannot afford to live the letter of the law.”

And the state seems to be doing a decent job educating its students. Last month, the College Board’s first-ever “Advanced Placement Report to the Nation” found that Utah ranked third in the country for students who took and passed AP tests, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington.

Calling the federal law’s goals “arbitrary,” Ms. Harrington said it “assumes all tomatoes ripen on the vine at exactly the same time.”

How federal officials will respond to Rep. Dayton’s more muted rebellion—and similar tactics in other states—is anyone’s guess. Federal education officials declined to be interviewed for this story, though Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey released a statement Feb. 1.

“We’ve been diligently working to provide all states with accurate information about the law and assistance with implementation issues, including Utah,” it read. “We continue to work with the governor and his staff and state officials to achieve the common goal of all children learning.”

Utah lawmakers also hope that the new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, who stressed in her Jan. 6 confirmation hearing that she wanted the law to be “sensible and workable,” will be open to their proposals. During that same hearing, U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, asked Ms. Spellings if she’d visit his state to address concerns there. She said she would.

But Utah’s legislative session lasts just 45, often frenetic, days, so a visit from Ms. Spellings may not come in time to derail Rep. Dayton’s new bill.

As for the state lawmaker, she would still prefer to rebuff the federal law altogether. “If I were the only person making the decision,” Mrs. Dayton said, “I would still opt out.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Utah Is Unlikely Fly in Bush’s School Ointment

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