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."
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.
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