On August 8, 2014, the Utah State Board of Education will decide whether to seek an ESEA waiver or not. This decision has drawn extraordinary attention from the entire state. As a district superintendent, I have had the opportunity to hear detailed arguments in support of the waiver as well as arguments that oppose the waiver. For me, this decision comes down to a matter of applying Title I resources to serve our most at risk students. I completely understand the positives of not signing the waiver. The pros and cons of this decision are all worthy arguments. A case can certainly be made for more state flexibility by doing either and returning to rules under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Many states without a waiver have proclaimed more flexibility by not signing the waiver. Even though this may be the case in many of these states, I think it is also important to look at the fact that the states without a waiver also maintain much higher spending levels per student than Utah. According to 2011-12 US Department of Education data, these are the states without waivers and their funds spent per student as well as Utah . It is evident that they may be able to better absorb the “set aside” requirements under NCLB. These states are: California ($9,139) Montana ($10,639) North Dakota ($11,420) Wyoming ($15,849) Nebraska ($10,825) Iowa ($9,807) Illinois ($10,774) Vermont ($15,925) Washington ($9,483) Utah ($6,212).
The issue for Juab School District and many other Utah districts is the flexibility to use Title I dollars to directly serve our students at risk in our elementary schools. Our Title I dollars are used to pay and train instructional aides to provide one on one and small group reading interventions to struggling readers in Title I schools. If we do not continue with the waiver, Juab would be required to set aside close to $30,000 in the first year and close to $90,000 in the second year (up to 30% of Title I funds) under NCLB rules. I have listened to some that would argue that this is such a small percentage of the Title I budget, and the state legislature may cover the cost to maintain services to students. For a rural district like Juab, there are no alternatives to cover these costs. As far as the legislature covering the deficit, I have yet to hear a single legislator step forward in public to announce any guarantee that there will be new revenue for public education let alone new funding to cover the set aside difference. I’m not sure it is fair to pressure our legislature or even ask for this funding when it is readily available and flexible from the federal government. If the state board does not apply for the waiver, our district will be faced with reducing services to our most at risk students. Finally, I am puzzled as to why we would rush into such a major decision when we have the option to withdraw from the waiver at anytime. School is set to start in less than a month. Utah schools are in full preparation mode. I believe by not signing the application for the waiver, we will further hammer on morale of all Utah educators. Let’s all throttle down our political engines on this decision for now and sign the waiver.
If we do not sign the waiver, there will be winners and losers. I can see by not signing the waiver, we will achieve victory through some political gains, however, the losers in this decision will be Utah students that are most at risk. In my opinion, signing the waiver is what is best for Utah students now. If we really want out of the ESEA waiver, lets fund Utah public education at least the average of those states without an ESEA waiver.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Robins’ Blog.