Utah challenges NCLB

Feds threaten funding cuts

The state of Utah may risk losing federal education funds in a showdown with the U.S. Department of Education after passing legislation that rebuffs federal law and allows the state to discard federal programs mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act. The move may set a precedent in the administration of NCLB; a development which other states will surely notice.

House Bill 1001 passed both chambers of Utah’s Legislature on April 19, and Gov. John Huntsman signed it into law in May.

The refrain of "unfunded mandate" has been heard in the Utah capital over the past year as the Legislature has been mulling over the idea of distancing their state from NCLB, culminating in the passage of the new legislation. The measure has been called the "sharpest denunciation (of NCLB) among 35 states" by the Associated Press, quoting the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Margaret Dayton. Effectively, the legislation will allow schools to eliminate federal education programs when federal funds for those programs are reduced or eliminated, according to the Utah Education Association. Also, the state could continue to use the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students as the basis for examining students under accompanying legislation House Joint Resolution 3.

The U.S. Department of Education has tentatively assented that the measure does not amount to Utah opting out of NCLB, and Utah state officials have generally indicated that the new guidelines would not endanger their chances of receiving federal education funds. According to figures provided to the Associated Press by Utah Superintendent Patti Harrington, the $107 million in federal funds amounts to about 7 percent of the overall state education budget. In an April Washington Times article, state Sen. Thomas Hatch explained: "Nowhere in this legislation does it say we are opting out of NCLB. I don’t think we’re going to jeopardize federal funding."

However, the verdict is still out on whether U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings agrees with Hatch’s assessment. In a letter sent in April to Utah’s United States Sen. Orrin Hatch, Secretary Spellings warned that $76 million in federal funds could be lost if Utah continued to pursue the proposed legislation. According to The Times, Spellings wrote, "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." The bill’s supporters argue that NCLB is a federal intrusion, and are awaiting the U.S. Education Department’s decision on whether federal funding will be withheld.

On April 20, a statement on "recent legislative action in Utah" was posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site. In this statement, Spellings says: "Since taking office, I have made a point of reaching out to state education leaders, and at every possible opportunity have signaled that I will be flexible and work with states to implement No Child Left Behind. But I will not do so at children’s expense." The release points to the fact that Utah has the third largest achievement gap between "Hispanics and their peers," and, "Turning back the clock and returning to pre-NCLB days of fuzzy accountability and hiding children in averages will do nothing to help the students who are currently enrolled in Utah’s schools."

As Utah begins to set up implementation procedures for its new legislation, other states around the nation will undoubtedly be keeping a close watch on the interplay between the Beehive State and the federal government. The Associated Press has reported that 15 states are currently considering legislation that could be at odds with NCLB.

Connecticut was the first to seek a remedy through the courts for NCLB’s alleged unfunded mandates when the state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the act in April, inviting other states to join in the suit.

In Michigan, the Pontiac school district is at the forefront of a national lawsuit against Secretary Spellings. Gongwer News Service reports that nine school districts in three states as well as the National Education Association are plaintiffs in the "unfunded mandate" lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court in Michigan. NEA chapters included in the suit are in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah, according to the Associated Press. The plaintiffs contend that the federal government has promised money to implement programs, but has not provided sufficient funds.

Utah State Rep. Steve Mascaro may have captured the feeling in the Utah Legislature when he told The Salt Lake Tribune: "I’d just as soon they take the stinking money and go back to Washington with it. … Let us resolve our education problems by ourselves. I will not be threatened by Washington over $76 million."