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Utah: the rogue state

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted May 9, 2005

I'd just as soon they take the stinking money and go back to Washington with it. -- Utah State Representative Steve Mascaro.

This is my third column on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The first column (March 7, 05) detailed the problems that NCLB presents to the states, and how Utah specifically was dealing with the issue. The second column, (March 14) was basically an interview with Utah's State Representative Margaret Dayton who sponsored H.B.135, which instructed that school officials "…shall [provide] first priority to meeting state goals…and [provide] second priority to implementing federal goals…"

Several interesting things have happened lately. Knowing that Utah was going to consider passing Rep. Dayton's Bill at a special session on April 19 and 20, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings reacted by offering some flexibility. On April 11, the Salt Lake Tribune reported: "The Education Department plans to give some states more freedom in how they test hundreds of thousands of children with milder disabilities. But only states that can prove progress or a strong commitment to improve will be seriously considered for that flexibility." The response was that Utah Superintendent of Education Patti Harrington and many legislators including Rep. Dayton didn't think the flexibility went far enough. The plan to present H.B. 135, now called H.B. 1001, at the special session, was not altered.

(Now, I have no idea if Margaret Spellings was in a "snit," but I like to think she was.) In a snit, Secretary Spellings wrote a threatening letter to U.S. Senator from Utah Orrin Hatch. (I have the full letter in front of me courtesy of Rep. Dayton.) Speaking of H.B. 1001, Spellings wrote (April 18), sniffing, "The Department generally does not offer its views on pending state legislation; however, I am concerned that the consequences of enacting and implementing this bill would be so detrimental to students." (Always appeal to the effects on "children.") "While the enactment of the bill itself does not guarantee noncompliance with NCLB, the implementation of a number of its provisions is likely (my emphasis) to cause conflicts and trigger the consequences discussed below." The consequences, of course, are the loss of money: Spellings threatened the loss of at least 76 million dollars.

So, the day before Utah's special session, Spellings warned the legislature, "Don't mess with the feds." How did the legislature react? According to the Tribune on April 20, "Saying they don't take kindly to federal threats, Utah legislators defied President Bush on Tuesday and approved a measure that challenges his NCLB education initiative… House Bill 1001 cleared the House 66-7 and the Senate 25-3…" The governor signed it on May 2 and on May 3, the SLT headlined: "Utahns cheer as guv signs NCLB protest." The article goes on: "…for half an hour Monday, the crowded library of Provo's Amelia Earhart Elementary was a picture of celebration, even proud defiance…Dozens of onlookers - including Provo officials, local parents and children – packed the room to witness the signing. Robert McBride sat in the back with his 11-year-old son and spoke for many when he touted the judgment of his own community and its teachers. 'Let them do their jobs and get out of their way,' he said, not hiding his frustration with the feds."

Remember when Republicans were the party of small government? When the 10th Amendment was basic to that philosophy? Remember when part of their agenda was to eliminate the Department of Education? Now, at least in Utah, the Republicans are identified "with the feds" and are using the same bullying tactics we used to accuse the Democrats of using when they were the majority party. Even the Heritage Foundation has gotten on the new Republican-big-government bandwagon. In a 3/2/05 Education Notebook, the commentator criticized Utah and Rep. Dayton (calling them the "new federalists.") for their legislation. In a beautiful email to the Foundation, Rep. Dayton pointed out "…that federal law establishing the Dept. of Education states that 'the establishment of the Dept. of Education shall not increase the authority of the Federal government over education or diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the states.'" Could anything be clearer?

While there are several other states and the National Education Association suing the feds over NCLB funding, Utah has passed legislation directly in conflict with the federal Act. Of course there is still a chance that even with H.B. 1001, Utah will comply with NCLB. Or there's the chance that Spellings and the feds will back down and give Utah the flexibility they need to stay in compliance. I secretly like the idea that there's the chance that the feds will "take their stinking money back to Washington."

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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