A nationally watched showdown between the U.S. Department of Education and Utah state officials over the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act turned into a political soap opera last week.
The serial came down to a cliffhanger in the last days of the legislative session when a final vote on a bill that calls for state education laws to take priority over the federal law was postponed. Tune in to an April 20 special session for the outcome.
Meanwhile, observers should not mistake the delay for a truce between Utah officials, who say the federal law is too invasive, and federal officials, who say its requirements are essential to improving schools. In fact, as the Utah legislative session ended March 2, some state leaders seemed more dead set against the federal law than ever.
“There’s beginning to be this broad realization that this is not just about how kids succeed … but about the federal takeover of schools,” said Utah state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington. “The way you stop it is right now.”
‘No New Concessions’
The feud between Utah and the federal Department of Education began last year, when state Rep. Margaret Dayton, a Republican, introduced a bill to let Utah opt out of the law entirely, though it could have cost the state $106 million in federal aid.
Under pressure from Washington, she ultimately shelved her proposal, which she sees as an issue of states’ rights.
But the tireless lawmaker returned this year with a scaled-down version that calls for the federal education law to take a back seat to state measures. The bill says that schools should follow the federal law in some instances, but only if there is federal money to pay for its requirements. The measure had passed the House and was expected to be approved unanimously by the Senate. (“Utah Is Unlikely Fly in Bush’s School Ointment,” Feb. 9, 2005.)
But that’s not what happened last week, as federal pressure apparently again played a role in the latest turn of events.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, and Ms. Harrington had just returned from a National Governors Association meeting in Washington when Mr. Huntsman, on March 1, requested a delay on the vote and a special session.
It turns out that while he was in the nation’s capital, Gov. Huntsman met with President Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Separately, Ms. Harrington also met with other Education Department officials.
Those meetings convinced the governor that he should ask state lawmakers for more time to consider the Utah education bill, said Tim Bridgewater, Mr. Huntsman’s education deputy, who also attended the NGA meeting.
“We can’t force the Department of Education to change, but if they’re moving in that direction to reach some common ground, then we want to work in good faith to that end,” Mr. Bridgewater said. He also cited as a sign of federal officials’ willingness to allow Utah more flexibility a decision last month in which the Education Department backed away from a determination that Utah’s veteran elementary and early-childhood teachers were not highly qualified.
Mr. Bridgewater cautioned, however, that “we’re giving them more time, … but we’re not going to stop the process.”
Superintendent Harrington said that during discussions in Washington, it appeared that federal officials were willing to be more flexible. But on March 2, Utah education officials received a letter recapping the Washington discussions. Ms. Harrington said it contained no new accommodations.
“They sent a fax to us yesterday saying, ‘Here’s the flexibility we now confirm,’ ” said Ms. Harrington who was appointed to the nonpartisan post by the state school board. “But there’s nothing in it, no new concessions.”
Ms. Harrington said Utah officials would insist on enough flexibility to use their state system, the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, or U-PASS, in place of the No Child Left Behind Act. For example, the state system insists on a year’s worth of progress for each student instead of the federal requirement that all students reach a certain level regardless of their starting level of knowledge.
“Our state will determine how much involvement there will be in No Child Left Behind, not the other way around,” she said.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the federal department, said progress was being made. “The state leaders and the administration both share the same goal—kids learning,” she wrote in a March 2 e-mail to Education Week. “And NCLB is about eliminating the persistent achievement gap.”
But, she added: “Change can be difficult.”
The issue is causing turmoil within the ranks of the Utah’s GOP leadership, which normally is inclined to support President Bush.
After being irked by the federal Department of Education’s letter and some concerns about Gov. Huntsman’s press release calling for the special session, some state senators were ready to join a coup.
“I no longer felt obligated to my commitment [to delay the vote] and was going to push forward,” Republican Sen. Tom Hatch, the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said in an interview.
But after a GOP caucus March 2, Mr. Hatch said legislators agreed to wait out of respect for a fellow Republican, Senate President John Valentine, who had struck the deal with the governor on the special session.
Mr. Hatch said Washington should take note that the bill is not going away. “If substantial progress has not been made by April 20, we will have a special session and we will pass House Bill 135 in its entirety,” he said.
State’s Stance Hit
Amid last week’s political intrigue, the Washington-based Education Trust, which promotes raising student achievement and supports the No Child Left Behind law, released a statement blasting Utah’s efforts to buck the law.
The Education Trust cited lagging test scores for Utah’s minority groups, particularly Latino and Native American students, and was critical of the state’s teacher-qualifications system.
Utah has been “sort of celebrated for standing up to the big bad feds, … but some of that has gotten untethered from reality,” Ross Weiner, the organization’s policy director, said. He pointed out that the state accountability plan, U-PASS, is not currently operating. Though the U-PASS law is on the books, Utah officials are still setting up the program.
Utah’s schools chief, Ms. Harrington, said the criticism was an example of Washington-style attacks. “The Department [of Education] has circled their dogs and sent them after us,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Utah Legislators Delay Action on NCLB Bill