The Journal Editorial Report | April 15, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
April 15, 2005

Utah to Feds: Hands Off Our Ed
school kids

Utah is leading a rebellion by dozens of states against No Child Left Behind, the federal program that is the centerpiece of President Bush's education policy. The states claim it is their job, not the federal government's, to determine goals and standards and how to measure student progress. Correspondent Celeste Ford reports from Salt Lake City.

The president's education agenda is facing its greatest challenge yet. No Child Left Behind went into effect three years ago and since then more than 30 states have objected to the law. But nothing compares to the developments seen during the past 10 days. It started in Utah, the state that delivered the president's largest majority during the last election but which is now leading the rebellion.

With a nearly unanimous vote Utah lawmakers called for a special session to consider overriding the federal law. Next Connecticut became the first state to announce plans for a lawsuit against the government. Then the new secretary of education came out with a major policy change.

The government's new policy promises greater flexibility for states that raise achievement and follow the principles of No Child Left Behind. One element is alternative testing for students with special needs.

Margaret Dayton But critics say that is not enough. They claim the federal government is making an unprecedented attempt to influence what schools teach and imposing rigid testing standards that do not take into account the difficulties of teaching disabled and minority students.

Representative Margaret Dayton is an author of the Utah legislation and outspoken opponent of No Child Left Behind. "The message that we want to get out is that Utah knows best what works for Utah's children and that this is a state's rights issue," says Dayton.

Assistant Secretary of Education Ray Simon counters criticism of the program by saying the program is a partnership, not federal intervention. "It's a partnership, it's a contract," says Simon. "In return for federal money, you agree to meet certain requirements that we believe are good for kids."

Not so says Dayton, "Any money the federal government gives us is money that they have taxed away from our state and they are now returning to us with strings."

In Utah the schools receive about $115 million per year in federal aide. Lawmakers and parents hope that Utah's rebellion won't lead to reprisals in the form of a cut in federal funds.

Jeff Sandberg "We have to find a compromise. we cannot succeed, we cannot survive without the federal funding," says Utah parent Jeff Sandberg.

At Jeff Sandberg's daughter's school nearly all the children come from low-income minority families, precisely the students who are the focus of No Child Left Behind.

For example, the federal law stresses the achievement gap between these students and white students and holds the school accountable for reducing that gap. If the school fails it could be penalized. Despite the pressure, Utah principal Shawna Wilde says overall, No Child Left Behind is a good thing.

"The fact that we are now looking at those kids which, maybe years ago, we said simply couldn't learn," says Shawna Wilde. "Now we're looking at it more closely. We're saying we have to find a way to teach these kids."

But in Utah lawmakers prefer their law which emphasizes the gains made by individual students instead of focusing on how many students and ethnic groups meet the standards. Margaret Spellings

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says the administration will not compromise on annual testing or the reporting of test results by ethnic group, a breakdown that can show a state's performance better than the average of all students.

Both Utah and Connecticut say the administration is violating its own law. No Child Left Behind says the federal government cannot mandate or control a state's education policies or force a state to incur costs not paid for under the law.

It's an untested argument but Utah expects to win.

"One of the things that unique in the West is the West doesn't like to back down," says State Senate President John Valentine. "There may be a point where have to say it is too costly and we have to educate children without federal funds. We are not to that point yet."

schoolgirlUtah lawmakers plan to meet April 19th for a special session on their legislation. It is expected to pass which will force the federal government to decide whether it will punish Utah for its rebellion.

Interview with Assistant Secretary of Education Ray Simon >