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Education Law Finds Few Fans in Utah

In Utah, legislators say that the state's own system of monitoring student proficiency is better than Washington's and that the Bush administration is overreaching.

SALT LAKE CITY. Utah was poised to deliver a rebuke to President Bush's No Child Left Behind law this week when the state's Republican governor stepped off the plane after a visit to Washington.

Republican state senators in this conservative state admire Mr. Bush. But many of them hate No Child Left Behind, his centerpiece school reform law, and they were ready to pass a bill challenging it.

But on arrival back in Utah, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who had met with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings at the White House, still had hopes he might win concessions, softening the federal law's footprint here.

The Senate agreed to wait - at least until next month when a special legislative session is scheduled.

Education officials nationwide are watching the events here to see whether this state will win in its game of brinkmanship with federal officials. Mr. Bush's 670-page law, signed in 2002, expands standardized testing and punishes schools where even small groups of students fail to make sufficient progress. But many states have challenged its enforcement.

In Utah, legislators say that the state's own system of monitoring student proficiency is better than Washington's and that the Bush administration is overreaching.

"This issue is a lot bigger than the details of teacher qualifications and student testing," said State Senator Thomas Hatch, the rancher who led the renegade Republicans this year. "This is about who controls education - the states or Washington."

Other states are also putting up a fight. Last week, the Texas commissioner of education ignored a ruling from Washington limiting the number of disabled students permitted to take an easier alternative to the standardized tests mandated for their grade level. Her decision prevented hundreds of Texas schools from falling short of the federal law's proficiency goals.

Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Education, said officials were "looking very closely" at the Texas decision "before we decide to take any action."

Virginia and North Dakota have been skirmishing with the Department of Education over various provisions of the law, and at least 15 state legislatures are considering challenges to it. Since Ms. Spellings pledged in January to enforce the law in a more "sensible and workable way" than her predecessor, her desk has accumulated a pile of requests from many states for changes in how the law is applied, officials said.

In a statement issued on Friday, Ms. Spellings thanked Mr. Huntsman for working with her and added, "Utah's legislators made the right decision for the state's students by deciding to continue to work with us."

The conflict over No Child Left Behind has led to a wider debate over the federal government's appropriate role in education.

"There are Democrats and Republicans who see No Child Left Behind as Washington running amok," said Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. "This is normal because it forces states, districts and teachers to change behavior, and people don't like being pushed. In some cases, I have no sympathy for those being pushed, because they're not doing right by kids and don't want to change. In other cases, I sympathize because some states and districts and schools were educating children better" before the law was adopted.

There is a dawning recognition among many conservative Republicans who cherish local control of education that the law represents the greatest expansion of federal power over schools in half a century.

"This is a Nixon-goes-to-China thing," said Reed Hastings, a moderate Democrat and former president of the California state Board of Education who supports the federal law. "Just as Nixon had the anti-Communist credibility to establish relations with China, Bush had enough credentials with Republicans to greatly expand the federal role in education."

But in Utah, Republicans' admiration for Mr. Bush has not overridden their dislike for his law. Two Republicans were among the first to oppose it.

The chairwoman of the House Education Committee, State Representative Margaret Dayton, studied the law closely with Patti Harrington, an experienced teacher and school administrator who last year took office as state superintendent of public instruction.

"We have our own ways of running Utah's schools," Dr. Harrington said. "N.C.L.B. goes beyond intrusion; it's a federal takeover."

Last year, Mrs. Dayton sponsored what became known here as an opt-out bill, which would have encouraged Utah educators to ignore the federal law. But after Bush administration officials flew to Utah and threatened to withhold $106 million in federal funds, Mrs. Dayton withdrew the bill from consideration.

When this year's legislative session began in January, Mrs. Dayton introduced H.B. 135, which instead of a full opt-out would require educators to give preference to Utah's education priorities over the federal law. On Feb. 15, the Utah House passed it by a vote of 72 to 0 and sent it to the state Senate.

Mr. Huntsman, who served the administration of the first President Bush as ambassador to Singapore and was a United States trade ambassador in the current Bush administration, criticized the federal law frequently during his campaign for governor last fall.

Last month, he announced that the Department of Education had reversed a preliminary ruling in a dispute over the qualifications of thousands of elementary teachers. Tim Bridgewater, an education deputy to the governor, said the Legislature's support for H.B. 135 had been useful in the talks.

"It helped get Washington's attention," Mr. Bridgewater said.

Utah's main goal, however, is to gain federal approval to use the state's own testing and school accountability program instead of the federal system. But Ms. Spellings has said that a non-negotiable feature is the law's requirement that test results be broken down by student groups, so that parents and other can identify when minority, white and other student groups are achieving at different levels.

Utah does not break down test results by student groups. Last weekend, Mr. Huntsman met with Ms. Spellings, while Mr. Bridgewater and Dr. Harrington met separately with several of the secretary's aides. But the federal officials did not budge on Utah's request to use its own accountability system, Mr. Bridgewater said.

Back in Utah's copper-domed Capitol, the Senate was working methodically on Tuesday, the next to last day of its annual session, and, in a unanimous preliminary vote, had cleared H.B.135 for final passage.

But when Mr. Huntsman arrived from Washington he immediately asked the Senate president, John L. Valentine, for more time. A letter from the Department of Education summarized the progress in the talks with Utah officials. Mr. Valentine seemed unimpressed.

"They reviewed some things, but didn't give us any concessions," Mr. Valentine said, pointing to the letter in a meeting with reporters. But out of loyalty to Mr. Huntsman, he delayed further consideration of H.B. 135, despite grumbling from his Republican colleagues.

"I'm confident that the governor means what he says," he said, "that if we cannot get the flexibility promised by the federal government, we will have a special session and pass H.B. 135."

— Sam Dillon
New York Times
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?tntget=2005/03/06/national/06Utah.html&tntemail1


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