Chicken Little and the ongoing NCLB Waiver Debate

Sky is fallingTomorrow, on Friday August 8, the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) will vote on whether to extend the waiver to the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

As I’ve noted previously, the cost of not passing the waiver would be an insubstantial portion of the state education budget, just $26.5 million in education funding from the federal government, or less than 1%.

And yet, you’d think that the very future of education funding in Utah–all of it–was on the line. USBE member Kim Burningham has called the requirements “onerous” and argues that by keeping the waiver in place Utah will be able to institute its own accountability system in lieu of federal systems. Dr. Rick Robins insists that the vote is a rushed decision and that the only way to provide for Utah’s neediest students is to renew the waiver or raise education funding in Utah to par with other states (coincidentally, states with dramatically different politics and education dynamics, but that’s nuance, I suppose).

On the other side are those who decry Common Core standards (which, I should note, are distinct from curriculum, which is set by local school districts) as federal intrusions into local education that should be jettisoned post-haste. They, too, talk as if the future is on the line, though few seem to address funding. Instead, they seem to be liberty focused and see in Common Core the stripping of state powers and local control of education.

(To be clear: Common Core is not specifically required by the waiver.  The waiver requires that the state either use standards similar to that of other states–which has coincidentally meant Common Core in the vast majority of cases, or standards set down by the Utah Board of Regents. In both cases, the Utah Board of Education gives up control of the standards, an end that belies the USBE’s constitutional role. In the first case, the Department of Education must approve the standards, and in the second case, the Utah Board of Regents–which governs Utah’s higher education system–must approve the standards. Heads I win, tails you lose).

Sorry to say it to both, but the sky is not falling.

Failing to renew the NCLB waiver will not mean the end of educational opportunity, even for the students in Title I schools.

Nor does passage of the waiver necessarily mean that Utah is federalizing public education…though I see arguments that it is a step in that direction.

For example, the SAGE questions developed to measure Common Core standards were not developed by a Washington, D.C. bureaucrat in the US Department of Education. Instead, the SAGE questions were developed locally…by a bureaucrat in Utah’s State Office of Education. Whether the standards are called Common Core–developed in conjunction with other states by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers–or something else, arguing that the source is a federal bureaucracy is probably not as important as figuring out how to raise the incentives to attract better teachers.

We’re fighting over the standards because we aren’t satisfied with the results our teachers are producing, and that’s largely because we don’t attract the best and brightest to be teachers as often as we would like.

Sorry, taxpayers, but that’s the truth. Good college students would rather go into a better paying profession, like medicine, or the law. Public education just doesn’t pay. Higher pay brings, and keeps, better teachers, and study after study after study confirms this.

Beware, though:do not confuse more money for teachers with money offered with strings attached.


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