- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings sent a surprise letter denouncing Utah legislation to put state education goals ahead of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on the eve of a special session of the state’s Legislature, which convened yesterday.

In the letter, sent Monday through Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, Mrs. Spellings warned that $76 million in federal funds might be cut off this year if the legislation passed and questioned motives of the bill’s sponsors.

Utah legislators yesterday rebuffed the threat, with the House voting 66-7 to pass the bill. The Senate then approved the legislation 25-3.

Mrs. Spellings wrote that “several principles of the bill are troublesome, and appear to be designed to provoke non-compliance with federal law and needless confrontation.”

The letter — which warned that “the consequences of enacting and implementing this bill would be so detrimental to students in Utah” — circulated through Salt Lake City by fax and e-mail Monday, building a wave of resentment among legislators, state officials said.

“I find it odd the threat of sanction would take away funds from the poorest schools,” state Senate President John L. Valentine said before the final vote.

State Sen. Thomas Hatch, the bill’s Republican sponsor in the Senate, emphasized during floor debate, “Nowhere in this legislation does it say we are opting out of NCLB. I don’t think we’re going to jeopardize federal funding. We’re simply going to try to negotiate the best possible situation we can [with the federal government] and maintain control [of state education].”

Mrs. Spellings’ implied threat of a funding cutoff propelled a backlash as the special legislative session convened.

“This is an extraordinarily worded letter,” said state Rep. Margaret Dayton, a Republican and primary sponsor of the bill.

She said denunciation of Utah legislation by a federal official was an “unwarranted intrusion” on state autonomy, especially because local school districts and state taxpayers shoulder 100 percent of the responsibility and about 90 percent of the cost of Utah’s 803 public schools.

The Education Department refused to comment.

Mrs. Dayton noted in House debate yesterday afternoon that Mrs. Spellings’ letter stated in the first paragraph that passage of the Utah bill “does not guarantee non-compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act,” thus federal funds would not be withdrawn.

“While the enactment of the bill itself does not guarantee non-compliance with NCLB, the implementation of a number of its provisions is likely to cause conflicts and trigger the consequences” of funding cutoff, Mrs. Spellings wrote.

“Utah provided binding assurances that it would comply with all NCLB requirements,” so conflicts between Utah and the federal government on any issues could cause funding cutoff, she wrote.

In the letter’s 25-line third paragraph, Mrs. Spellings warned that the department probably would cut off at least $76 million in federal funds this year for low-income school districts and teacher training in Utah under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) if the Legislature passed the bill.

In the Legislature’s regular session last month, Mrs. Dayton’s bill was unanimously adopted by the 73-member House, but Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who is expected to sign the measure today, requested the state Senate to delay action and allow time for negotiations between Utah and Washington.

The discussions stalled over federal officials’ insistence that Utah implement annual achievement standards mandated in the federal law in all the state’s public schools, including an estimated 600 that do not receive federal ESEA funds.

In her letter, Mrs. Spellings criticized Utah’s failure to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

She pointed to a disparity in reported math achievement in 2003 under the state’s standardized test and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) required under No Child Left Behind.

Under the state test, 74 percent of white eighth-graders and 47 percent of Hispanics were reported “proficient or advanced” in math, while just 34 percent of white and 7 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders were “proficient or advanced” on the NAEP math test.

Mrs. Dayton said yesterday that greater progress in closing the gap was prevented because the state’s own education reforms were “not totally implemented. All our efforts were put on hold to implement NCLB.”

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