Thursday, April 14, 2005

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings scrapped a visit to Utah today that had been intended to help quell an unfolding Republican state legislative revolt against federal control of Utah public schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.

After several years of wrangling, the White House and Utah’s Republican governor hoped to avoid the possible embarrassment next week of a Republican-controlled state’s becoming the first to assert its own public school accountability standards. Such a move would repudiate the Bush administration’s requirements for student progress under the act.

But Mrs. Spellings canceled her visit without explanation as serious differences persisted between state and U.S. Department of Education officials.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. averted sure Senate passage last month of a unanimously approved House bill asserting states’ rights, by persuading Senate leaders to put off action until the bill can be addressed in a special legislative session next week.

“The special session is going on as planned,” said Tim Bridgewater, the governor’s education deputy and principal negotiator.

Mr. Bridgewater downplayed the expected passage of the states’ rights bill as a rejection of the No Child Left Behind law, saying, “Negotiations and discussions are ongoing.”

State Rep. Margaret Dayton, Republican principal author of the bill, drew a different conclusion, saying Mr. Huntsman and Bush administration officials had excluded legislators and Utah’s education superintendent, Patti Harrington, from substantive negotiations with federal decision-makers.

The main stumbling blocks between Utah and the federal department concern requirements and funding to close the achievement gap between the state’s 85 percent white student population and minority students.

Mrs. Harrington agrees that Utah has “a pernicious achievement gap,” with Hispanics testing 27 percentage points below the state average in reading and math tests throughout public schools, American Indians testing 42 points below average and disabled students testing 46 points below average.

But she said the solution is to continue with the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS), implemented in 2000 to measure performance in language arts, math and science. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, she said, just 65 percent of students overall must prove to be grade-level proficient in reading and mathematics.

“We’re now at 80.4 percent aggregate [proficient under U-PASS],” she said.

Mrs. Spellings and the federal department, however, insist that all student subgroups — racial minorities, the disabled, children from poor families — meet the state target for annual student progress.

“Only 25 percent of our schools get [federal] Title I funding, yet No Child Left Behind says we have to meet federal goals in 100 percent of the schools,” Mr. Bridgewater said. “We don’t have the budget. To do that, we have to cannibalize all our other programs.”

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