SALT LAKE CITY — The State School Board postponed a decision Friday on whether to request an extended waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind after an hourlong debate revealed divisions among board members.
Utah first received a waiver in 2012, which freed the state from certain requirements in the embattled federal education law, particularly the requirement that 100 percent of a school's students score proficiently on state tests in 2014 or be labeled as failing and subject to onerous sanctions.
In exchange, the state agreed to adopt college- and career-readiness standards, align state assessments with those standards and implement a state-developed accountability system and teacher evaluations.
The education community has largely supported those decisions as a boon to local control, but the State School Board has faced criticism from Utah lawmakers and residents who see the waivers as a ploy to entice states into adopting the Common Core State Standards and an example of the Obama administration circumventing the legislative process.
With a little more than two months remaining to renew the waiver, members of the State School Board were divided on whether to continue with Utah's state-developed accountability system or return to the federal Adequate Yearly Progress reports of No Child Left Behind, which, if enforced, would cost the state tens of millions of dollars and label most Utah schools as failing.
"The question is, if we didn’t apply for the waiver and we went back (to Adequate Yearly Progress), the price tag is probably around $50 million in ongoing money," said David Thomas, board vice chairman.
That cost would come from requirements that failing schools under No Child Left Behind replace their instructional materials, hire new staff, offer after-school supplementary instruction and provide transportation for students wishing to attend successful schools, which may or may not exist given the 100 percent proficiency requirement.
Board members suggested that forgoing the waiver would either require a decrease in school services or an infusion of funding from the state Legislature by raising taxes or pulling funding from other areas.
But board member Kim Burmingham said that when Utah already has the lowest funded education system in terms of per-pupil spending, it is unlikely schools would be able to recoup the money they lose to No Child Left Behind sanctions.
"Unless you can come up with some assurances from somebody, I think this is dangerous talk in my estimation," Burmingham said. "It reeks of a gamble to me, and we’re gambling on the education of our children, and that makes me really, really nervous."
And Karl Wilson, the Title I director for the Utah Office of Education, said failing to reach the requirements of No Child Left Behind would have other impacts on schools beyond financial losses.
"We have the financial impact, and it’s really hard to measure exactly what that would be, but there’s also a morale impact to have teachers and schools be labeled, whether appropriately or not, as a failing school," Wilson said.
While the board ultimately voted to postpone a decision on the waiver extension, several board members suggested that meetings be held with Utah legislators to determine what steps, if any, could be taken to lessen the impacts of returning to No Child Left Behind.
"We get beat up by our federal delegation for having taken the waiver, and yet I see no rush on the part of our federal delegation to fix No Child Left Behind," Thomas said.
But board member Jefferson Moss said it was states' accepting waivers that led to Congress neglecting to take action on the unpopular and flawed law.
"There was a lot of pressure on Congress to act, and once they started to allow these waivers, it really let a lot of the steam out of that, and that’s why there hasn’t been this urgency," Moss said.
Associate State Superintendent Judy Park told the board that if it were to request and be approved for a waiver extension, the board would have the option of withdrawing from that waiver at any time. But if the board fails to request a waiver by the deadline in two months, she said, the requirements of No Child Left Behind would automatically return.
"It’s not binding from the sense that once we have approval we have to do it," Park said. "But if we don’t have approval, we have to do it."
It is expected that the board will return to the issue during its meeting Aug. 8.
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