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Utah bows to Bush on education drive

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Utah bowed to Bush administration pressure to shelve a unanimously passed state House bill to opt out of the federal No Child Left Behind regulations before the state Legislature ended its 2005 session last week.

Republican leaders had the votes to pass the bill in the state Senate as well, which would have made Utah the first state to repudiate President Bush's federally driven effort to improve academic achievement in public schools.

But at a White House request, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, delayed the final state Senate action, and instead called a special April 20 legislative session to reconsider the bill to repudiate No Child Left Behind.

"I reluctantly agreed with the governor and the legislative leadership that we would not have this vote in this session, but that we would postpone it because the governor wants more time to negotiate with officials in Washington," state Rep. Margaret Dayton said.

No education issue in Utah has had such "unanimous broad-spectrum support" from conservatives and liberals since Utah became a state in 1896, the Republican lawmaker said.

"We must go forward, but out of respect for President Bush and our governor, we are going to give another month for negotiation," Mrs. Dayton said.

Mr. Huntsman had private discussions with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and White House officials during a recent National Governors Association meeting. A state delegation is coming to Washington for further negotiations with administration officials within several weeks.

"Utah's legislators made the right decision for the state's students by deciding to continue to work with us, instead of working at cross purposes," Mrs. Spellings said. "Every state has an achievement gap to tackle, including Utah, where teachers, principals and state leaders are working hard to overcome it. Ultimately, education decisions are made at the local level, and that's how it should be."

State Rep. Kory M. Holdaway, a Republican and special-education teacher whose second bill to opt out of No Child Left Behind also passed the House unanimously, said the law is flawed because expected progress in learning achievement is not based on a child's capabilities, as required by federal law for handicapped children.

"The focus should be on individual gains for each child," Mr. Holdaway said. "A hundred percent [grade-level proficiency in reading and math] by 2014 is impossible."

The law requires schools that accept federal aid to set benchmarks for "adequate yearly progress" by children in reading and math and to test students each year in grades three through eight. Schools that do not meet adequate yearly progress two years in a row are labeled "in need of improvement" and must offer supplementary tutoring for lagging students. The Utah legislation gives primacy to state education standards and requirements if there is a conflict with No Child Left Behind.

The federal law requires student reading and math test results to be reported for subgroups so achievements of racial and ethnic groups, English learners, low-income children and special-education students with disabilities are reported separately from averages for the total school population. Utah does not separate student test data.

This is a major unresolved dispute between the state and the Bush administration. Federal officials say Utah has a 20-percentage-point reading and math achievement gap between white and Hispanic students that is masked when student test score results are not separated for subgroups.

Utah stands to lose $116 million yearly in federal school aid if it refuses to comply with No Child Left Behind requirements. However, state officials said the pending legislation has been crafted carefully so Utah would not lose its share of federal school grants.

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