State School Board postpones decision on NCLB waiver

Published: Thursday, July 17 2014 8:20 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A divided State School Board again failed to take action Thursday on the state's waiver from No Child Left Behind, with the deadline to request an extension approaching in mid-August.

The waiver frees the state from certain requirements of the embattled federal education law — particularly the requirement that 100 percent of students score proficiently on statewide tests in 2014 — and allows the state to operate its own locally developed accountability system.

Absent a waiver, the state would be compelled to comply with the sanctions of No Child Left Behind, including requirements to divert funds intended for the assistance of at-risk students, the hiring of third-party consultants, faculty and administrative shakeups, and potentially the closing of traditional public schools to be reopened as charters.

In a presentation given to board members, board vice chairman Dave Thomas said the first-year costs of ending the state's waiver would be $26.5 million.

"All of our schools fail next year — all 1,067," Thomas said. "And in fact, every school in the United States under No Child Left Behind fails next year."

The waivers, offered to states by the U.S. Department of Education under direction from the Obama administration, have produced vocal opposition, particularly among conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups.

Opponents argue that the constitutionality of the waivers is unclear, accusing the president of circumventing the legislative process, and that the adoption of the waivers by most states has had a cooling effect on incentivizing Congress to re-authorize or repeal No Child Left Behind.

"This is Congress’ job, but I’m not sure they feel the pressure to do anything about it while everyone has waivers," board member Heather Groom said.

Critics also see the waivers as evidence that states were coerced into adopting the controversial Common Core, as a provision for qualifying for the waiver included the implementation of college-ready academic standards.

A capacity crowd filled the school board's chambers, with many sporting "Do Not Renew" stickers on their clothing next to "Stop Common Core" buttons.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she is opposed to No Child Left Behind but still urged the board to abandon the waiver and return to the requirements of the federal law.

"I have spent years, from day one, trying to do something to stop No Child Left Behind," Ruzicka said. "But I don’t want to get out of No Child Left Behind by replacing it with something much, much worse."

But the state's education community is largely supportive of extending the waiver. Logan Toone, Davis School District's assessment director, compared a return to No Child Left Behind to doctors electing to treat their patients with leeches and bloodletting out of opposition to federal medical guidelines.

"Not to renew this waiver would be stepping back into a system that didn’t work in the first place," Toone said. "In reality, if we don’t renew the waiver application, we’re not uninviting federal involvement. We’re reverting back to a still-federal program that is outdated, outmoded, ineffective, inflexible and not funded."

Carbon School District Superintendent Steve Carlsen spoke on behalf of the Utah School Superintendents Association, urging the board not to abandon the work of its state-developed accountability system and to at least continue with the waiver until more information could be obtained.

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