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Utah Legislator Calls NCLB the Federal Education Blackmail Act,
Ohanian Comment: Don't get your hopes up too high. It looks like the governor will veto the bill if it passes.

In a bold step toward a declaration of war against President Bush's education reforms, legislators advanced a bill Thursday that turns Utah's back on No Child Left Behind and the $103 million-plus it brings to the state's revenue-starved schools.

The House Education Committee unanimously forwarded House Bill 43 to the floor, a move that has national implications and the potential to devastate more than 200 Utah schools that rely on federal dollars to improve achievement among disadvantaged students.

Rep. Margaret Dayton said her bill sends Washington an unmistakable message that it is overstepping its bounds in a domain historically left to states. "This really is a states' rights issue," the Orem Republican said. "Our neighborhood schools should not be held accountable to the federal government."

While most committee members agreed -- in principle -- several said they couldn't vote for the measure on the House floor if it meant sacrificing federal money.

"We need to get a lot of answers before we make an unequivocal break from [No Child Left Behind]," said Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. "There is a lot of money at stake."

Utah's defiance could be costly, prompting Gov. Olene Walker and some school officials to question the wisdom of HB43.

Walker stopped short of saying she would veto it. While acknowledging that she, too, resented the federal intrusion, the governor said she would be hard pressed to justify sacrificing $103 million when Utah spends less per pupil than any other state.

"We cannot afford to lose that amount of money in our public education system," she said Thursday during her monthly KUED news conference. "But I am willing to work with [federal officials] to make certain that the [federal] requirements are something that the state of Utah can live with, and we will do everything we can to see that that happens."

No Child Left Behind requires public schools to show annual test-score gains among all demographic groups. It imposes sanctions on high-poverty schools that fail to meet their targets. This year, 80 such schools were among the 246 schools statewide that missed the federal standards.

Salt Lake City school officials say Washington's strings, though a nuisance, are worth the $8 million they get in federal money to provide low-income children with before- and after-school programs, smaller class sizes and summer sessions, among other services.

Giving up that money could mean leaving those 8,574 children behind -- unless the state plugged the funding hole -- and letting the federal government spend Utah taxpayer money as it pleases, Superintendent McKell Withers said.

"I don't understand the conditions that would lead us to decide not only are we going to spend the least per student, but that we're also going to send $103 million to other states," he said.

State officials fear that total could grow even higher if the federal government also yanked funds for special education and subsidized lunches for low-income children.

San Juan School District draws a third of its $34.7 million from federal sources. That chunk would be jeopardized, and with it, the teachers, programs and services that have boosted student achievement in southeastern Utah, said Tim Taylor, the district's director of elementary schools.

"We are seeing success," he said from his Blanding office. "Over the last three years, we have had a 12 percent gap reduction in the achievement level between Anglo students and students of color. We are very proud of that. I'm not sure we could function without that money,"

Even so, some administrators at the state Office of Education endorsed the bill -- if only to negotiate more wiggle room in meeting the stricter federal standards. Indeed, Associate Superintendent Patti Harrington sat alongside Dayton as she pitched the legislation to the House committee.

"This bill is a good thing," Harrington said. "We need to get the attention of the federal government on the problems inherent in No Child Left Behind. Can we do without the money? No. We must have the money."

Asked if Dayton's bill is a risky gamble, she said, "I would be very surprised if this [Bush] administration would want to have the publicity of pulling funding. My guess is they'll want to reconcile things."

The state Board of Education is expected to take a position on HB43 today.

Federal officials said state lawmakers should not be so quick to blame Washington for their qualms with No Child Left Behind. After all, the state Office of Education designed the tests, set the passing scores and developed the other measures used to comply with the statute, said Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

"Certainly, it's disappointing, and we would hope that it doesn't happen," she said of Utah's movement toward opting out of the federal program. "That said, No Child Left Behind is about all students being able to read and do math on grade level. States are free to determine how they meet that goal."

Aspey and others questioned the validity of HB43's fiscal note, which asserts the state could incur more than $1 billion in costs associated with implementing No Child Left Behind.

"I'm at a loss to explain how they could have arrived at these figures, which are ridiculously high and almost defy common sense," Aspey said. "It would appear that these computations are based on faulty methods and a clear lack of knowledge about the law."

The state's fiscal analyst derived the potential price tag from a Jordan School District analysis that projected implementation costs of $182 million for Utah's largest district. The tab includes $15 million for teacher raises, $28 million for training aides and $8 million for full-day kindergarten. None of those is mandated in No Child Left Behind.

Still, committee members said Utahns should be the ones deciding how to hold schools accountable

"This is the 'Federal Education Blackmail Act,' and I'm somewhat incensed by it," said Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem. "We have to stand up and demand we won't be blackmailed. . . . I for one am ready to send a message that we in Utah will not stand for it."

States across the nation are watching to see how Utah proceeds, said Scott Young, a policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures' education program.

"Other state legislatures and policy-makers are looking to see what happens," Young said. "By and large, Utah has been on the forefront of this issue and this is considered to be one of the stronger actions of a state."

Earlier this week, the Virginia House passed a resolution urging the federal government to allow the state to use its own accountability system instead of No Child Left Behind. Washington state is expected to consider a similar measure.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine have contemplated bills to prohibit spending state money on costs associated with implementing No Child Left Behind. Last year, the Hawaii House passed a resolution discouraging the state schools superintendent from complying with the federal law.


High cost of No Child Left Behind
The Jordan School District estimates it will cost more than $180 million to implement the federal No Child Left Behind program. Here are line-item budget estimates, which federal officials say are inflated:

More experienced teachers $7.3m
Increasing pay (to compete for teachers) $15.5m
Replacing underqualified aides $28.4m
Signing bonuses for new teachers $1.5m
Class-size reduction (to 18 per teacher) $31.5m
Teacher advancement incentives $5.0m
Remediation (to help underachieving students) $41.8m
Other costs* $51.0m


Projected No Child Left Behind funding $4.9m

* Includes training, mentoring, scholarships, technology, other incentives.
Source: Jordan School District The Salt Lake Tribune

— Ronnie Lynn
Panel votes to leave ed plan behind
Salt Lake Tribune


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