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
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."