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

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

But critics point to the waiver's requirement that states adopt college- and career-ready standards as a tacit mandate to adopt the controversial Common Core. And policymakers have suggested that by accepting the waivers, educators have relieved the pressure on Congress to fix No Child Left Behind.

Burningham acknowledges that the waiver comes with federal strings attached. But the board was already working on improving the state's standards when it applied for the waiver, he said, and Utah's educators ultimately see greater local control with — rather than without — a waiver.

Burningham said he is concerned about the effect that ending the waiver in August would have on schools that are just now preparing for the start of a new school year.

By ending the waiver and losing control of tens of millions of dollars, he said the State School Board would effectively be telling school administrators to fire the new teachers and teacher assistants they hired for the upcoming year.

"If indeed this is something to be done, it must be done in a long-term fashion, working with the school districts so they know what they’re doing, and working with the Legislature so we know what they really are doing," Burningham said. "For us to precipitously take action is, in my estimation, really premature."

Justin Jones, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber, said the decision to forgo control of roughly $25 million is not one that should be arrived at quickly.

"I understand that this waiver extension is only one year long," Jones said. "Taking the next year to evaluate it in the long term is wise."

Individual members of the Legislature have expressed an appetite for compensating the public education system for funds that are jeopardized by the loss of the waiver.

But Burningham, who served as a lawmaker before joining the school board, has cautioned his colleagues on the board that the wishes of individual lawmakers do not always translate into new legislation.

"I’ve been a legislator for 15 years in the past, and you can’t say what the Legislature will do until they do it," he said.

The legality of the waivers has also been questioned, with some suggesting the U.S. Department of Education lacks the constitutional authority to circumvent the legislative process.

Board members requested a legal analysis of the issue from the Utah Attorney General's Office, which is expected to be presented as part of Friday's board meeting.

Christel Swasey, an advocate and organizer from Heber City, said in an email to the Deseret News that the waiver system is "absurd" and opponents are asking the State School Board to call the Department of Education's bluff that sanctions will be levied against schools.

"NCLB is extremely long, and I doubt a single person in the state has read it," she said. "Nobody really knows what will happen if and when we reject it, in terms of money lost. "

Swasey said her group's petition letter had gathered 500 signatures by Thursday morning and was growing by the hour.

When asked about the issue of local control, Swasey described No Child Left Behind as a prison wall and the waivers as a second, taller wall that further binds the state to federal requirements.

She said restoring true local control is a multi-step process that requires first rejecting the waiver and the Common Core State Standards before ultimately freeing the state from No Child Left Behind.

"We aim for true local control, meaning that parents and local school boards and teachers and principals don't have their hands tied and voices silenced by state mandates nor by federal mandates," Swasey said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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