The U.S. Department of Education will let states step up on their own — to a degree — to improve student achievement under No Child Left Behind, so long as they prove what they're doing helps close achievement gaps for ethnic minorities, students with disabilities and the poor.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings also announced schools could test 3 percent, instead of just 1 percent, of students with disabilities on their own level. But the same improvement standard still applies.

Spellings announced the "new way of doing business" in a Thursday address to the nation's state school chiefs.

The speech offered Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington a glimmer of hope the department might start seeing things Utah's way in a drawn-out, states' rights battle.

But she and Rep. Margaret Dayton, the Orem Republican carrying a bill challenging the federal reach into Utah schools, nonetheless remain guardedly optimistic.

"At minimum, we're looking for a written statement that assures the state of Utah full control of governance and accountability measures in Utah schools. (That) is still our bottom line," said Dayton, referring to a letter the Utah Senate sent to Washington. "If they approve our growth model (for complying with NCLB) . . . that changes a lot of things. (But) the likelihood of that happening between now and the special session is not great."

Spellings is scheduled to visit Utah next Friday to meet with state leaders over NCLB issues, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced.

No Child Left Behind aims to have all students, regardless of race, poverty or disability, read and do math on grade level by 2014. It judges schools' progress toward the goal every year. Schools where one group of students fails to pass muster are publicly labeled.

Officials from Utah and other states have griped about the one-size-fits-all approach.

Dayton calls it an intrusion on states' rights.

Last year, she challenged the federal reach by sponsoring a bill to opt Utah out of NCLB. She backed off when federal officials warned $106 million was at stake.

This year, she sponsored HB135, which directs Utah school officials to put Utah educational goals before the federal law in terms of investment and doing what's best for students.

The bill had unanimous support in the House and Senate preliminary votes. But as it faced its final hurdle, legislative leaders and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. decided to hold off until an April 20 special session to give time to negotiate with the feds for more flexibility.

Concessions being sought by the state include holding off on testing English language learners for three years instead of one and permission to use Utah's own accountability system, U-PASS, to meet NCLB standards.

"I think we've gotten a win on having the federal government recognize Utah's approach to special education," Huntsman education deputy Tim Bridgewater said. "I don't think the bill hurts. I think in fact (Spellings') announcement is in (line with) the spirit of the bill. It is not an opt-out bill. It is one that says state standards should prevail."

But Utah's desire to replace NCLB with U-PASS has raised concerns in the past week. Utah's proposal now says schools wouldn't be held accountable for student achievement unless there are at least 40 students in a group, such as low-income or minority children, but will report performance of groups of 15.

Ethnic minority and some school leaders worry that will leave students to be swept under the carpet. They also fear Utah could violate NCLB and jeopardize federal dollars, a large portion of which benefit disadvantaged students.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com