SALT LAKE CITY — Utah schools will continue to operate outside the bounds of No Child Left Behind during the upcoming school year.
On Friday, the State School Board voted unanimously to request an extension of Utah's waiver from the frequently criticized federal education law.
The extension request approved by the board — which is subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Education — includes several statements affirming Utah's right to control its standards, assessments and educator evaluations.
Those clarifications were made as part of an effort to reach a compromise on the issue, which has divided the board for several months and generated significant debate among educators, parents and policymakers.
"We do feel it’s a good compromise and we can move forward, protecting the rights of our state and control over our public education system while also getting some flexibility to the onerous demands of No Child Left Behind," board Chairman Dave Crandall said.
But while the board was able to come together on the decision, many were displeased that the waiver will continue.
Prior to the meeting, protesters lined 500 South outside the Utah State Office of Education, chanting "no more Common Core" and "kick the Core out the door" while waiving signs critical of federal intrusion into Utah schools.
The State School Board adopted the Common Core prior to and independent from requesting a waiver from No Child Left Behind. But those critical of the Core view the waiver's requirement for college- and career-ready standards as an implicit mandate that states adopt the Common Core.
Waiver opponents also worry about the message the state sends by accepting the waivers, which are seen by some as an inappropriate use of executive powers.
"The current administration is overstepping their authority with these waivers," said Alisa Ellis, a Wasatch County parent and education activist. "We have a runaway department of (education) who believe they are above the law."
No Child Left Behind requires that schools achieve 100 percent student proficiency on year-end tests or be labeled as failing and subject to financial and operational restrictions.
Without a waiver, effectively every school in the state would be labeled as a failing school and roughly $25 million in federal Title 1 funding would be set aside for federally mandated purposes.
Since receiving an initial waiver in 2012, Utah education officials have developed unique tests, teacher evaluations and a school accountability system for the state, all of which would have been threatened by returning to No Child Left Behind.
"They’ve all been in place for some time now, so (ending) this waiver would have slowed down some things that we feel are really helping us move along and improve education in the state," said Steve Carlsen, superintendent of Carbon School District and president of the Utah School Superintendents Association.
Board members were also accused of putting politics before the needs of students by considering a return to No Child Left Behind.
Ann Geary, a school board member from Logan who spoke on behalf of the Utah School Boards Association, said because the waiver affects Title 1 funding, the consequences of ending the waiver would be disproportionately felt by low-income students.
"You are considering dismantling these opportunities for our most vulnerable children so that you can make a political statement," Geary told board members. "It is unbelievable that you might return to greater federal control."
But those opposed to the waiver argued that the road to local control begins with the termination of Utah's waiver.
Larry Ballard, a candidate for the Nebo School Board, said the waiver is a temporary solution that does little to mitigate the long-term effects of No Child Left Behind.
"An application for the flexibility waiver is simply kicking the can down the road," Ballard said. "Sooner or later, Utah will have to take the financial hit."
Tiffany Hess, an anti-Common Core activist, said she felt her concerns on the issue had not been heard by the board and that she and other parents have been completely disenfranchised.
"I think what they’ve done makes a complicated situation more complicated than it was," she said. "The answer here is to get out of state entanglements as a two-step process. We’ve got to step back from the waiver and then step back from No Child Left Behind."
Hess disagreed with the categorization by the board that the vote represented a compromise. She said board members claim to believe in local control of education but continue to act contrary to that belief.
"If you’re for local control, then you’ve got to be for local control," Hess said. "They’re saying they’re for local control, but $26 million in the state of Utah is less than one-half of 1 percent (of state education funding). They’re saying they can’t find it? I can find it in 10 minutes."
Representatives from both the Utah Educators Association and the Utah Parent Teacher Association recommended that the board extend the waiver to allow time to develop an "exit strategy" should the board later determine that returning to No Child Left Behind would be advantageous to the state.
Crandall said that discussions of a future withdrawal from the waiver would depend on the reaction of the U.S. Department of Education to the conditions included in the renewal request.
Board Vice Chairman David Thomas said even if the department rejects the statements of state control included in Utah's request, the state would likely be allowed to continue operating outside of No Child Left Behind in a probationary status.
"I would expect that if the department does not like these assurances, what we’ll do is we’ll still be under a waiver, but we’ll be on warning," Thomas said, "and obviously we’ll have to start negotiating and bring that back to the board."
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