State School Board Considering Returning to No Child Left Behind

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State Board of Ed LogoTonight, the Utah State Board of Education will debate whether to apply for another one-year Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Waiver.  The ESEA Waiver allows Utah to not comply with certain federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates through the creation of its own state systems.  Utah’s current waiver is set to expire in August.

By choosing not to apply for the ESEA waiver, Utah would return to No Child Left Behind.

Why is this an issue?

Those opposing the ESEA waiver feel like it is federal intrusion due to its specific application.  Furthermore, the current ESEA Waiver has fueled a lot of controversy.  One example of concern is a condition of the current waiver is Utah use UCAS.  Many would like to see a different growth model used to measure student achievement, but to change UCAS – Utah would have to get permission from the feds.

Those supporting the waiver disagree.  They believe by having a waiver Utah is actually more free from federal intrusion and is given more flexibility.  They point to UCAS as an example of this, Utah is able to utilize a state created system and alter that system rather than only have a federal one.

Would not signing the waiver mean Utah abandons the Common Core?

Not necessarily.  The ESEA Waiver — which many opposing the Common Core despise — forces Utah to choose between two boxes.  Box one stating it will use standards in common with other states OR box two that says it will have higher education set public education standards (which would be unconstitutional per our state constitution).

Since most states have adopted the Common Core, it is easy to have standards in common if Utah also uses the Common Core.  But it could be argued that similar, but not exactly the same, standards could qualify; meaning  Utah could create its own standards and then find states with similar standards and still meet the requirements of the waiver.

Even if Utah does not submit the waiver application, the process to change standards is a lengthy, cumbersome, and expensive one.

Despite what you may have read, not having an ESEA waiver does not change testing and assessments either.  SAGE would still exist.  Computer adaptive testing would still be given.  Remember: NCLB is all about high stakes testing.

Why have a waiver?

Money.  The financial impact of Utah not applying for the ESEA Waiver and returning back to the No Child Left Behind requirements is unclear.  Despite requests for specific estimates of the cost, the USOE has declined to give Utah-specific cost estimates due to no state ever taking this route before.  Estimates ranging from $400 million lost to some guessing that the state may come out ahead have all been speculated.

With the waiver we are also able to identify Priority and Focus schools in which to allocate resources.  The ESEA Waiver enables Utah to make decisions that are much more local on resource allocation.  NCLB requires treating all schools that fail to meet AYP the same.

Having the ESEA Waiver is also the status quo.  It is what our state knows.  It doesn’t require change.

Board of EducationDo we have other options?

We may.  There are other states who have been granted “mini waivers.”  North Dakota, a state similar to Utah in its mix of rural and urban schools, has a mini waiver which allows it to avoid some aspects of NCLB that would be burdensome given their specific situation.

To receive a ‘mini waiver’ would require negotiations with the Federal Department of Education.  Despite the fact that the State Board is charged with signing contracts, creating programs in need of legal review, writing rules, and much more — they have not been able to secure their own board attorney.  The Attorney General’s office does assign them ONE attorney, but that person has changed three times in the past year.  Currently, the State Board has no one to negotiate for them – this is a problem.

What are the politics at play?

The Legislature would LOVE for the State Board to not seek the ESEA Waiver.  It would be great conservative political fodder.  It can definitely be spun to be a slam on the feds for their intrusion into Utah schools.  But the Legislature would be fools to believe that not having a waiver will quiet the anti-Common Core fervor they hear; to the contrary, it will actually increase impatience for change NOW.

The State Board and the Legislature have not historically worked well together, but a decision not to seek the ESEA Waiver could result in a more congenial relationship (one that the State Board hopes will mean more funding for its priorities this coming session).

What now?

The ESEA Waiver is on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the State Board.  Yesterday, Board Chair Dave Crandall peddled the idea to legislators during interim meetings and seemed to receive the reaction he hoped for, though promises from legislators to make up forgone funds are conspicuously missing.

This vote will split the board.

The board will do one of two things: apply for the one year waiver with an exit plan in place for next year including specific funding priorities they will expect from the legislature OR they will decide to not apply for the waiver.  My money is on the latter.

Tune in tonight for the debate.

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