Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Utah’s state Legislature is poised to repudiate the No Child Left Behind Act and spurn $116 million in federal aid tied to it because state policy-makers are fed up with federal control of education and dictates.

“This is not a partisan issue; this is a states’ rights issue,” said Rep. Margaret Dayton, a 55-year-old Republican and mother of 12 who has led the rebellion to make Utah the first state to opt out of No Child Left Behind.

“We share the same passion President Bush has for quality education, but there is not one opponent [to opting out] in the entire Legislature, which is 2-to-1 Republican,” Mrs. Dayton said.

Mrs. Dayton’s bill and another giving primacy to state education standards won unanimous House approval last week.

The state Senate, whose education committee also unanimously passed the measures to pull out of No Child Left Behind, will act this week. No senator has voiced opposition, and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, is prepared to sign the measures, state officials said.

Bush administration officials have conducted round-the-clock negotiations in an attempt to prevent Utah from becoming the first state to ignore the school accountability law. The law establishes conditions for states and school districts with low-income families to receive about $13 billion a year in federal grants. Utah’s share is about $116 million, which the state would lose if it spurns No Child Left Behind requirements.

Utah wants to use state definitions for “highly qualified teachers” and school quality rather than definitions prescribed by No Child Left Behind.

The state has been demanding more flexibility in required student testing to measure reading and math achievement, saying handicapped students and children with learning disabilities in special education cannot keep pace with other students.

State officials contend that the law is unfair because it labels schools “in need of improvement” if even one subgroup of students, such as those in special education, fail to make “adequate yearly progress” in reading or math two years in a row.

The state has more than 20,000 first- through third-graders who don’t read at grade level, including a disproportionate number of special-education students and children whose primary language is not English.

A major sticking point for the administration is Utah’s insistence that students in special education and those whose primary language is not English be measured separately from the entire school population in order to gauge whether a school has met adequate yearly progress.

The administration opposes the move because a primary goal of No Child Left Behind is to close a large learning achievement gap between white and minority students. Utah has a 20-point achievement gap between white and Hispanic students in both reading and math, according to the latest tests by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Eight other state legislatures — in Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont and Virginia — are considering challenges to No Child Left Behind.

Utah’s action “sets the stage for what other states will do down the line,” said Scott Young, an education policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. “Other states are watching to see if the defiance convinces the federal government to be more flexible with its requirements.”

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