In a vote expected to rattle chains in Washington, the Utah House quickly and unanimously approved two bills Tuesday that require state officials to give local education goals priority over President Bush's.
The vote is being regarded as another challenge by Utah to No Child Left Behind, the federal standardized testing and school assessment measure passed by Congress in 2001.
Just having HB135 and HJR3 before lawmakers was already having some noticeable effect before the vote, school administrators said.
"We're just beginning to see flexibility this week" in talks with federal officials, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington said. Until now, federal "flexibility has been through a very tight sieve."
HB135, sponsored by Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, attempts to sort out conflicts between state and federal law. It gives priority to state goals, particularly in terms of spending state dollars and deciding what's best for kids.
HJR3, sponsored by Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, would have Utah use the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS), which education officials believe fulfills the spirit of NCLB, until the federal law is amended and adequately funded.
Bill sponsors see NCLB as federal intrusion on states' rights to oversee public education. The bills now go to the Senate for debate.
"We want to send a message to those in the federal government that Utah has a great education system and that we know best how to manage that education system," Holdaway told House members.
NCLB aims to have all children reading and doing math well by 2014. Utah officials praise its intent but decry its application, particularly for extending to special education students and labeling schools for not meeting academic goals.
Public education officials instead prefer U-PASS's focus on kids' academic growth and have asked the U.S. Department of Education if they can use it to meet NCLB requirements. They also contend Utah's teacher licensing rules meet NCLB's "highly qualified teacher" benchmarks, which some fear would send experienced teachers back to college.
Tim Bridgewater, the governor's education deputy, says the bill, coupled with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s relationship with the Bush administration, "has been helpful in opening some dialogue with the Department of Education."
"We feel like we made substantial progress on gaining flexibility . . . (and) reaching our goals and the objectives of No Child Left Behind," said Bridgewater, who, with the State Office of Education, has negotiated with federal officials for the past week. "To date, we're very optimistic we will succeed in the lion's share of those objectives."
This isn't the first time Utah lawmakers have confronted Washington.
U.S. Department of Education officials last year paid Dayton a visit regarding her NCLB opt-out bill. Dayton eased off, and the bill went to interim study because it could have cost the state $106 million in federal funding.
It's uncertain whether giving priority to state goals under HB135 would affect federal money coming to Utah. The prioritization could pull Utah from NCLB compliance and jeopardize the money, Harrington acknowledges. But she also believes Utah's educational system is on solid ground in meeting NCLB.
Dayton notes the bill actually could save the state $450,000, which Harrington's office would use to outsource preparations for Utah's NCLB review.
Harrington says the review extends into testing and other details under her, not federal, purview. The review will require boxes worth of documentation, and Harrington doesn't want to pull Utah officials off current duties to gather it all.
"(The time and money) could be used to improve student achievement in our state," Harrington said. "This is federal intrusion. The state runs public schools. My accountability is to the State Board of Education, the state Legislature and the governor. I shouldn't have the additional piece of the federal government on top of that."The U.S. Department of Education did not return a phone message seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.