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'No Child' rebellion picking up momentum


Opposition to President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law is gaining traction, and Republicans -- even in GOP strongholds such as Utah -- are among those digging in deepest.
The schism sets the stage for an unusual confrontation between administration officials and Utah legislators, who have taken the strongest action to date against the education-reform law that the president touts as one of his top domestic accomplishments.
A Utah House committee last week unanimously advanced a bill sponsored by Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, to opt out of the law and forfeit at least $103 million it provides for programs and services that target disadvantaged students. House Bill 43 probably won't be debated on the floor until after a meeting Friday between lawmakers and officials from the U.S. Department of Education.
Utah isn't alone.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Indiana, Virginia, Wisconsin and Vermont have joined Democratic counterparts in a handful of other states in launching measures that oppose provisions of the 2-year-old law.
Some observers say the bipartisan backlash could spell trouble for Bush this November.
"The president thought this bill would help him with his re-election, but I believe he gained maximum credit on this bill on the day he signed it," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank. "Now that we're into implementing a lofty law with difficult provisions, he will not get the credit he hoped to get, and, in fact, he might be tarnished by the controversies."
Beltway Republicans, meanwhile, say the rebellion in the states is directed at the U.S. Department of Education, not Bush. Department officials interpreted the law too narrowly when they developed guidelines for state implementation, said U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.

"The department has the flexibility to take care of states like Utah. We need the bureaucrats to figure out Utah does a pretty good job and we want to do it our way," he said. "It's also clear the White House does not want the state that had [one of] the largest margins for Bush [in the 2000 election] backing out on a program."
A Utah political scientist says the state measures do target Bush -- at least partly.
"This is one of those issues where there's a tension between what a party would like to do and what its ideological roots are," said Kelly Patterson, an associate professor and head of Brigham Young University's political science department. "Local control. That's the rub. He had to show national leadership, and that means treading on states."
Dayton and Utah Republican leaders have taken the unusual step of refusing to discuss HB43 publicly until after their meeting Friday with federal officials. Dayton has said the law's federal intrusion, unrealistic expectations and potential drain on state school funds prompted her to sponsor the legislation.
Congress passed the law with bipartisan support in 2001, but many Democrats -- including presidential candidates John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have softened their endorsements after seeing how the law has affected schools. Both say schools need more federal funding to carry out the mandates.
A Kerry spokesman said Wednesday that the Democratic front-runner would reform the law to include more money and "assure schools focus on teaching to high standards and not drill-and-kill test prep."
States, districts and schools have been complaining about the law's strict testing requirements since the Education Department began issuing its guidelines. Even so, the Bush administration has resisted pleas to amend the law or its guidelines.
"Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability," said Bush in last month's State of the Union speech. "Yet the results we require are really a matter of common sense. We expect third-graders to read and do math at the third-grade level, and that's not asking too much."
McKell Withers, superintendent of Salt Lake City schools, likened HB43 to a game of chicken, and he had some advice for Utah lawmakers: Swerve -- because Washington won't.
"There is a legend [at the Legislature] that if you time this just right you can opt out but not lose any funding," Withers said. "But I doubt [the federal government] is going to say, 'We thank you for making this a huge political issue, we accept your apology and here's your money.' "
rlynn@sltrib.com
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Tribune reporter Linda Fantin contributed to this report.


— By Ronnie Lynn
Salt Lake Tribune
www.sltrib.com/2004/Feb/02052004/utah/135830.asp


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