Utah Lawmakers May Ditch No Child Left Behind Waiver and Common Core at the Same Time

The nationwide Common Core educational standard sticks in the political craw of a number of Utah Republican legislators.


How’s this for a radical idea?

Reject the waiver/federal funding for George Bush’s No Child Left Behind – now widely condemned by Republicans across the land and in Utah – fund the lost federal money to the tune of $26 million, if need be, and see the behinds of both Common Core and No Child Left Behind.

In short, cut federal education strings on two programs, make up the difference with state monies, and please Common Core haters (raise your hand Utah Eagle Forum) and the state rights advocates at the same time.

Seems like a win for Utah GOP lawmakers, who are discussing this possibility in Capitol corridors.

“I like the idea,” Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told UtahPolicy after his closed caucus meeting.

“It would give the state flexibility. And I think it could be done without losing any federal funds,” just a reallocation of those funds into different areas of the huge public education budget.

True, the move requires a complicated budget quick-step, say GOP leaders.

And it would require approval of the 15-member, non-partisan State Board of Education, some of whom are up for re-election this year.

“It would be a chance for the State Board to work with the Legislature for once,” said one GOP source.

Several board members, including chairman David Crandall, met with GOP legislative leaders on Tuesday, sources told UtahPolicy, to discuss the “reform” idea.

While it would be the board’s decision to end the annual No Child Left Behind federal waiver, because all public schools would then fall under No Child Left Behind federal law, it would take $7.5 million to accommodate some NCLB regulations, up to $26 million each year to make up other requirements.

And it is a complicated issue to explain to voters.

But for many GOP lawmakers, and maybe even GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, it would be one way – a pretty smart way, some lawmakers told UtahPolicy – to get out of the Common Core political mess.

Common Core is much misunderstood, its supporters say.

CC was started, in part, by the National Governors Association, a group that Herbert is now vice-chairman of and will become chairman next summer.

So it could be embarrassing to him if Utah decides to opt out of its voluntary educational goals.

But a number of conservative Utah groups now oppose Common Core – and Herbert has taken a beating from his party’s right wing (including having to fend off an anti-CC challenger inside the Republican Party in 2012) over his support of Common Core.

Niederhauser said the Common Core standards would not immediately be junked – and maybe never would be.

But through dumping the NCLB waiver, reallocating funding into different pots, Utah would be free to change Common Core standards as education leaders and lawmakers like.

“It would be costly and very disruptive” to dump Common Core standards now, in one fell swoop, said Niederhauser.

“Maybe we would change them slightly.”

But the key is that Utah would get out from under federal education mandates.

“We would have the flexibility to change” Common Core or other federal mandates, said Niederhauser.

“The state, not the federal government, would decide,” said Niederhauser.

By shifting dollars from here to there inside the massive $1-billion-plus school appropriation act in the 2015 Legislature, little if any negative financial impact would be felt, some Republicans say.

But that’s just one side of the argument.

There no doubt will be opposition, especially from some Democrats who will point out that anyway one cuts it, not getting a NCLB waiver, falling into the program’s requirements, and then having to meet penalties imposed when ALL Utah schools don’t achieve 100 percent No Child Left Behind standards (and not all Utah schools can), is just a plain bad move.

Kim Burningham is a State School Board member who is not running for re-election this year.

He says it makes no sense to him to get out of the No Child Left Behind waiver, especially now.

“We can get out of (the waiver) any time,” said Burningham, a former GOP House member whose opinion columns are occasionally printed in UtahPolicy.com.

NCLB “waiver actually gives us flexibility, not ties us with federal strings,” he added.

In any case, NCLB and Common Core have nothing to do with each other, says Burningham.

One is a federal law, the other voluntary guidelines set out by the NGA and the national school superintendents association.

“There is no tie between the two.” But some legislators “are worried about a constituency out there that want to get rid of Common Core. They hate anything Obama or the federal government.”

But President Barack Obama has nothing to do with Common Core, beyond saying he liked its goals, said Burningham. “There is not a problem with Common Core standards, as I see it,” said Burningham.

“And if getting out of the waiver costs us $26 million (in new state aid), hey, if the Legislature has $26 million extra why don’t they spend it on dozens of other needs” instead of giving that federal Title 1 money up? Burningham asks.

In any case, the Utah school superintendents association has sent a letter to lawmakers/State School Board asking them not to get out of the NCLB waiver.

Still, supporters of the idea says it is a win-win-win situation.

— First, almost everyone agrees there is too much testing of Utah school kids now. Following the new idea will cut out some federally-required testing, allowing Utah school bosses to develop a statewide testing plan on its own. (Some of this is being done already.)

— Second, when you study NCLB funding and federal strings, Utah is going to spend $7.5 million more next year on increased teacher evaluations – one of the federal strings.

Bump state funding increases up to $26 million (which will be done anyway as state income tax revenues are growing – and they fund public education), and even more federal education strings can be cut.

— Thirdly, getting out of Common Core requirements – whether they are really a good idea or not – will get some politically conservatives off the backs of their Republican legislators.

Few, if any, GOP legislative candidates this year will LOSE their races this November because they oppose Common Core.

GOP senators talked about the idea in their closed caucus Wednesday.

House members hold open caucuses, and the idea was not on their agenda and did not come up during the two hour meeting.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, said it is too early to talk about the new idea, mainly because the State Board of Education must first make its decision.

“As a body, we don’t want to get ahead of (the board) that legally and constitutionally need to address this,” said Dee. “We really don’t want to inject ourselves into their decision.”

The board may make a decision sometime in August – and the Legislature is not meeting in interim committees next month.

“I think it would be a good time for us (the House GOP caucus) to talk about it” in September.

Herbert is still a concern to some GOP lawmakers – they don’t want to anger the governor or back him into a corner. After all, he’s been a supporter of Common Core.

But would Herbert veto line item budget spending aimed at cutting federal education strings? Supporters of the “reform” idea ask.

Stay tuned, much more about No Child Left Behind and Common Core to come.