With Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. pledging to sign a bill that puts Utah education policy ahead of the No Child Left Behind Act, state education officials now hope to make the case to the U.S. Department of Education that Utah should not be penalized for failing to comply with the federal law.
The Republican-led legislature’s passage of the measure April 19 was the strongest act of defiance by a state against the 3-year-old law so far. (“Union, States Wage Frontal Attack on NCLB,” this issue.)
And while the state measure, which the governor plans to sign May 2, does not immediately raise compliance issues, it eventually could put at risk some $76 million in annual federal education money, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wrote in a terse evaluation of the Utah bill last 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 the April 18 letter to U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who had requested an evaluation of the state measure.
Utah currently receives about $106 million under the No Child Left Behind law out of a $2.4 billion K-12 state budget.
But legislators there were adamant that their state accountability plan should take precedence over the federal law, voting 66-7 in the House and 25-3 in the Senate for the measure last week.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Margaret Dayton, a Republican, said in an interview that control over K-12 education is the “last bastion of state sovereignty.” Many legislators, she said, were offended by Ms. Spellings’ letter.
“A lot of legislators took this personally as a threat to the state of Utah by the strong arm of the federal government,” Mrs. Dayton said.
The Utah lawmaker paved the way for last week’s action with a bill she introduced last year that would have rejected all of the state’s federal education funding. That proposal was eventually dropped. Then, early this year, she drafted the legislation that now has passed. (“Utah Is Unlikely Fly in Bush’s School Ointment,” Feb. 9, 2005.)
“Utah totally shares the [Bush] administration’s desire for quality education,” she said. “Utah just wants the traditional state control of its own children. Utah is pretty intense in wanting to take care of its own children.”
It appears that the next step would be up to state school officials who, under the legislation, would have the authority to ignore provisions of the federal law that conflict with state education standards, or provisions that cost the state money.
The path that the state takes may become clearer once the final pieces of its state testing system, the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, or U-PASS, are put in place later this year.
State Superintendent of Education Patti Harrington maintained in an interview last week that Utah would “remain absolutely compliant with No Child Left Behind,” even if the federal government does withhold funds.
Under the NCLB law, states must test students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school. It also demands that schools and districts report student test scores by demographic subgroups, and offer school choice or services such as tutoring if they fail to meet adequate yearly progress goals set by the state. States eventually could replace the staff of a persistently low-performing site.
If the federal Department of Education does not approve the state’s U-PASS testing system, the state will create a dual system of accountability, Ms. Harrington said, using the state system’s data as the primary accountability mechanism and the federal system as the secondary one.
The U-PASS system, which is still being hammered out by the legislature and the state education department, differs from the No Child Left Behind Act in its reporting requirements. In particular, Utah and federal officials have sparred over provisions on adequate yearly progress and on reporting the test scores of students who have disabilities or are still learning English.
So far, state and federal officials have not been able to agree on whether the state’s proposed system of testing and accountability would be stringent enough to meet NCLB requirements.
The state likely would lose federal money for Title I students, teacher training, and parental-choice programs if it is deemed out of compliance. School districts that serve the highest numbers of disadvantaged students likely would see the most impact.
Observers in and outside of Utah last week were downplaying the potential effect of the Utah measure, and predicted that the state would continue to receive all its federal aid. They disagreed, however, about whether the state or federal side would ultimately prevail on the policy issues.
The Utah School Superintendents Association supported the state bill because the group believes that Utah will prove its standards are in compliance with the NCLB law, and thus no federal money will be lost, said Gary Cameron, the group’s executive director.
“We feel comfortable with the legislation that was passed,” Mr. Cameron said. “We still believe that the Utah assessment plan is the one that we will be following.”
But Raymond J. Simon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in an April 20 interview that his office was in talks with the Utah Department of Education over modifications to its accountability plan.
He said his office was working on the assumption that the state would comply with the law, and that the federal department would not need to withhold aid.
“So far, we’ve made good progress with that, so I’m optimistic that we can continue with that dialogue,” he said.
Meanwhile, David L. Shreve, a lobbyist with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said other states would watch the situation in Utah. But he added that it was impossible to predict whether Utah’s move would lead other states to snub the federal law’s provisions.
“It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes before they take action [to carry out the state measure] and before the Department of Education has a reaction,” he said.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced earlier this month that his state plans to sue the federal department over the mandates in the NCLB law, and Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley squared off last week with Secretary Spellings and other federal officials over the inclusion of students with disabilities in state test scores.
Ms. Harrington, the Utah schools chief, said she hopes Utah will become an example for other states because it is standing up for what she sees as a critical issue of state sovereignty, as well as against an unfunded federal mandate.
“No state should allow that to happen over the small amount of money received from the federal government,” she said.
But Fredreka Schouten, a senior associate at the Washington-based Education Trust, said her group, which supports the NCLB law, was disappointed in Utah’s move, given that Education Trust research shows a significant achievement gap between minority and white students in the state.
“We’ve started to hear the voices of the parents of children of color who are deeply concerned about the quality of education their children receive, and want to make sure Utah pays attention to their needs,” she said.
On the eve of the legislature’s stand against the No Child Left Behind law, minority groups, parents, and activists in Utah protested against the state’s proposal, raising concerns about the achievement gap and the potential impact of the change on needy children.
Assistant Editor Erik W. Robelen and Staff Writer Michelle R. Davis also contributed to this report.