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State School Board postpones decision on NCLB waiver

Published: Thursday, July 17 2014 8:25 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.

"We just really feel like we don’t know what doing away with this waiver means, and we really don’t feel like (the State School Board) knows either," Carlsen said. "Wait to make your decision when you’re more fully informed."

A motion to extend the waiver, with the understanding that the state could withdraw at any time in the future, was made by board member Kim Burningham.

But that decision was instead postponed as board members expressed a need for a legal review of the waivers' constitutionality, greater input from the state's education stakeholders and a more in-depth review of how No Child Left Behind would impact the finances of public schools.

"We now have to ask permission from the federal government if we want to change, and that’s something I’m not comfortable with," board chairman David Crandall said. "We need to take a careful look at what we’re getting into this second time."

Thursday's meeting included a video conference with Kirsten Baesler, superintendent of public instruction for North Dakota. Baesler said her state had not applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind and added that educators determined the financial impact would be minimal and were uncomfortable with how the Department of Education had undercut the law of the land.

"We don’t feel, I don’t feel, that we should be operating under any type of provisions that haven’t been approved by our federally elected officials," she said.

But Baesler's comments also highlighted a number of differences between North Dakota and Utah, particularly her state's level of per-pupil spending, which was recently increased and is roughly three times the level appropriated to Utah schools.

Baesler also said that even without a waiver, educators in her state had determined the Common Core to be an improvement to the state's standards, and the Core was subsequently adopted into the North Dakota Core.

Burningham noted the disparate funding levels between North Dakota and Utah, suggesting it allowed educators there to more easily absorb funds lost by being labeled failing under the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

"They have a lot more money than we have to deal with their students," he said. "It would be much easier to play around with things if you had more money to work within, and we do not and our students are hurt because of it."

Board member Jennifer Johnson noted that the funds affected by No Child Left Behind at most would be 30 percent of all state Title 1 funds and that those funds would be not lost but reallocated by federal statute.

But board member Debra Roberts commented that changes in Title 1 funding have an adverse affect on students who require the greatest assistance.

"What counts to me is the immediate impact on individual students who are our most vulnerable students," Roberts said, "and there would be an absolutely immediate impact on those kids."

Several board members expressed that they had received verbal assurances from state legislators that funding lost to No Child Left Behind sanctions could be recouped during the upcoming legislative session.

But other board members cautioned against relying on future funds that may or not materialize at the expense of losses that would immediately impact school districts.

"To pull the rug out like that, how can we expect education to continue in Utah this year if we do something like this?" board member Barbara Corry said. "I think we need to try and smooth it enough so that everyone involved in education is not destroyed."

At a media event earlier in the day, Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he was directing the attorney general's office to conduct a review of the state's participation in the Common Core State Standards and the No Child Left Behind Waiver.

Herbert said the purpose of the review would be to determine whether the waiver had forced the state to cede local control of education to the federal government, but he added that the choice to extend or abandon the waiver remains with the State School Board.

"I wouldn’t tell (the school board) what to do, but I know they’ll do the appropriate thing as they do that analysis," the governor said. "I expect they’ll come up with the right decision."

Herbert also criticized Congress for failing to act on the antiquated and embattled No Child Left Behind Law, and urged Utah's federal representatives to work toward a solution at the national level.

"I call upon our congressional delegation to lead the effort to fix No Child Left Behind," he said. "Utah should not be forced, nor should other states for that matter be forced, into the position of increased federal intrusion due to the impossible benchmarks that NCLB sets. This is a problem that Congress has the responsibility to address."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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