State School Board facing pressure from all sides ahead of NCLB waiver vote

Published: Thursday, Aug. 7 2014 5:15 p.m. MDT

The State School Board will vote Friday whether to request an extension of Utah's waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind.


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SALT LAKE CITY — When the State School Board votes Friday to renew or abandon Utah's waiver from No Child Left Behind, it will almost certainly do so in front of a capacity crowd.

Organizers of a prominent anti-Common Core website have encouraged their supporters to wear "grass green" clothing and arrive early for a peaceful protest outside the board's chambers.

A petition letter circulated by the same group criticizes federal encroachment into local decision-making and encourages the school board to abandon its waiver, which "gives credence to the pattern of federal involvement" in Utah schools.

"It is the state board’s responsibility to work to reduce federal involvement in education and promote general state control, and pass everything possible down to the local school and district level that should appropriately be governed there," the petition states.

But school board members have also been lobbied to extend the waiver. They were recently delivered a letter sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber that includes the signatures of 151 local business leaders, politicians and educators.

Signatories include former Govs. Michael Levitt and Olene Walker, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Prosperity 2020 Chairman Alan Hall and more than 80 members of district school boards from throughout the state.

"A rejection of the waiver places Utah back under the provisions of NCLB, thus increasing federal involvement rather than diminishing it," the Salt Lake Chamber letter states. "Moreover, the idea of shifting the policy platforms of the state back and forth is unnecessarily disruptive to those who must administer the educational programs of the state."

At issue is a waiver offered to Utah and most states by the U.S. Department of Education — and by extension the Obama administration — that frees schools from many of the requirements of the embattled 12-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, more commonly known as No Child Left Behind.

In particular, the waiver removes the threat of financial sanctions for schools that fail to achieve 100 percent student proficiency on year-end tests, a threshold many believe to be unachievable.

The question of whether to request a one-year extension of the waiver has divided members of the State School Board, who in meetings have reported receiving contradictory requests from parents, teachers, school administrators and members of the Utah Legislature.

One of the central points of debate between the various groups has been the issue of local versus federal control of education, an issue that is, at best, complicated.

"People are saying, 'Don’t pass the waiver and you get rid of federal control,'" board member Kim Burningham said. "That’s ridiculous. We go back to No Child Left Behind, which is clear federal control, so I see the issue as more emotion rather than reality."

The waiver has allowed the Utah State Office of Education to develop its own system for evaluating the performance of schools. Absent a waiver, Utah would again be evaluated by the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of No Child Left Behind, which would immediately label every school in Utah as failing or underperforming.

Ending the waiver would also result in administrators being restricted in the way they spend portions of Utah's federal education funding — estimated between $20 million and $30 million statewide — compared with the relative flexibility they now have in allocating resources toward at-risk student populations and specific district priorities.

"It requires you to spend money in particular ways, and some of those ways are not the ways I would like to be forced to spend them," Burningham said. "I would want the power to remain with our local school districts."

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