Assessment

Utah Panel Votes to Quit No Child Left Behind Act

By David J. Hoff — February 11, 2004 3 min read
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State officials across the nation have been complaining about the burdens of President Bush’s K-12 program, but some Utah legislators are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

A bill that would take the state out of the No Child Left Behind Act— forfeiting the federal funds that make up about 5 percent of Utah’s K-12 budget—has cleared the first legislative hurdle and is ready for debate in the GOP-led House of Representatives.

The 15-member House education committee unanimously approved the two-sentence bill on Jan. 29—even after hearing from educators who opposed the measure because it would result in losing $103 million in funds the state currently receives annually under the 2001 measure, which reauthorized the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Rep. Margaret Dayton, a Republican who is the committee’s chairwoman, sponsored the bill. She and other supporters of the bill argued that the federal law infringes Utah’s rights to set its own school policies, according to hearing attendees.

Ms. Dayton and other House leaders declined to comment on the bill last week, but issued a joint statement saying they would remain silent on the legislation until they met with representatives from the U.S. Department of Education who agreed to visit the Utah lawmakers after the vote. Those meetings were scheduled for late last week after Education Week went to press.

“Because of these concerns and the complexity of the debate, we are committed to a thorough research before the matter is further advanced,” said the statement from Ms. Dayton, Speaker of the House Martin R. Stephens, and Majority Whip Jeff Alexander—all Republicans.

Gathering Steam

During the current state legislative sessions, opposition to President Bush’s signature education program has been surfacing even in Republican strongholds like Utah, where the GOP holds 56 of the 75 House seats. (“Debate Grows on True Costs of School Law,” Feb. 4, 2004.)

In Virginia, the state’s Republican-led House of Delegates last month overwhelming approved a resolution calling the No Child Left Behind Act “the most sweeping federal intrusion into state and local control of education in the history of the United States.”

But the resolution called for flexibility for federal officials in implementing the act rather than suggesting the state was willing to forgo federal funding.

Federal Department of Education officials are working to shore up support for the No Child Left Behind law. In addition to sending one of his top advisers to Utah last week, Secretary of Education Rod Paige wrote Virginia legislators to defend the act and urge them to reconsider their opposition.

“The law and subsequent regulations were intentionally written ... to provide maximum flexibility to states while at the same time working toward academic achievement for all children,” Mr. Paige wrote in the Jan. 29 letter.

“A lot of the agitation is based on misinformation on what the law requires,” said Eugene W. Hickok, the acting U.S. deputy secretary of education. “A lot of actors at the state level are acting with good faith on bad information.”

Letter of Law

But Utah legislators don’t see it that way. Ms. Dayton’s bill simply says: “The state board of education and local school districts may not enter into a contract or other agreement or otherwise further participate in the ‘No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.’” The effective date would be this July 1.

While other state officials in Utah say they don’t like several details in the law, they appear unwilling to give up the $103 million that comes with it.

“We cannot afford to lose that amount of money in our public education system,” Gov. Orlene S. Walker said at a news conference. The Republican added that she’s lobbying federal officials to ease some of the law’s requirements.

Utah officials want to change how schools are measured in making progress toward annual student-achievement goals. They would prefer being able to set flexible goals for each school rather than meeting the same fixed goals for every one, according to Patti Harrington, the state’s associate superintendent for student achievement and school success.

Even without those changes, Ms. Harrington said, Utah education department officials are willing to comply with the act rather than give up the money.

Salt Lake City, for one, just can’t afford to lose the federal funds, said John R. deJong, a school board member for the 24,000-student district, who spoke against the bill at the Jan. 29 committee meeting. “We have a $180 million budget, and $8 million [from the ESEA] is a big chunk of that.”

The Utah bill has not been scheduled for floor debate. There is no companion bill in the Senate.

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