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No Child Law Faces Fight: Utah Lawmaker Leads a New Wave of Opposition
Make no mistake, Utah state Rep. Margaret Dayton has thrown down a gauntlet before the U.S. Department of Education.
Her bill demanding that Utah put state education priorities and dollars ahead of the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed the House last week and is expected to clear the state Senate.
And the staunch Republican is evolving into the de facto leader for dozens of states looking for an effective way to challenge President Bush's high-profile education law.
"I hope this won't be judged as an 'in your face' bill," Dayton said.
"It says we're going to prioritize our funds for state goals as much as we can, and the federal goals are our second priority," she said. "We assume that by living the spirit of the law we won't be jeopardizing our (federal) funding if we don't live the letter of the law."
Many states have struggled to comply with the letter of the law since its passage in 2001, with critics calling it an unfunded mandate that many states can ill afford.
The bipartisan National Conference of Legislatures hosted 14 public hearings around the country last year, and today will release a series of recommended changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.
Challenges in 15 states
The act requires accountability for public elementary and middle schools through expanded standardized testing, highly qualified teachers in all core classes and verifiable yearly progress among all subgroups of students.
School districts and individual schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress based on specific benchmarks are subject to penalties.
New Education Secretary Margaret Spellings helped develop the Texas accountability system that served as Bush's model.
She said during her confirmation hearing that the Bush administration would "stay true" to the principles of the law, but would look for improved ways to implement its goals.
Fifteen states have introduced legislation in the first two months of this year challenging the law at a variety of levels.
Virginia passed legislation this week ordering a study of exactly how much the state spends to enforce the act, to determine if it's more than the $330 million in federal funding they would lose by not enforcing it.
Nearly 30 states introduced legislation challenging No Child Left Behind in 2004.
Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley is working with about a dozen other states to ask for a moratorium on a regulation that allows only 1 percent of the students in any school to take a standardized test designed for children with learning differences.
Statewide, 12 percent of public school students receive special-education services and Texas is giving alternative tests to as many as two-thirds of them — violating the federal cap.
"We think that 1 percent figure is too low," said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. "But the states want to have some time to do research so we can go to the (federal) department with hard evidence to say the figure should be 3 percent or 5 percent or whatever the research indicates."
A more subtle approach
Many state leaders are taking their cue in challenging the law this year from Dayton, who last year drew fire with a bill calling for Utah to withdraw completely from No Child Left Behind.
It passed quietly through the Utah House, but died in the Senate after the U.S. Department of Education threatened to yank $105 million in federal education funding.
"That's about 5 percent of our state budget," Dayton said. "But NCLB directs 100 percent of our state education. I didn't feel like it was worth that 5 percent, but I had to deal with reality. "
This year, Dayton looked for a more subtle tactic.
Her latest bill says Utah will proceed with a plan for sorting out conflicts between federal and state law — but that state law will prevail.
And she says other states' legislative leaders are calling for advice on duplicating her approach.
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