Utah Should Reapply for the NCLB Waiver

In the August 8 meeting, the Utah State Board of Education will make an important decision.  I earnestly believe Utah should reapply for the waiver from the onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Frankly, the State Board is relatively divided on the issue.  As I view the matter, however, the best course for Utah students is to seek waiver renewal.

A perspective on NCLB and the waiver

NCLB was instituted by the Bush Administration in 2002. (Interestingly, it was sponsored in the U. S. House of Representatives by Rep. John Boehner.)  Although some positive outcomes have resulted, most observers find the requirements of the bill distasteful.  Perhaps the most troubling is that a school is required to meet participation and academic achievement levels in 40 different areas. If that school does not meet the standard in just one of the categories, they are labeled as not making adequate yearly progress.  If the school continues with that label, they are required to spend funds in prescribed ways. 

Further (and idealistically if not realistically) the legislation required all US schools to meet 100% attainment by all students by 2014. Although a worthy goal, it isn’t now and never was realistic.  If Utah still operated under the provisions of NCLB, all schools would fail the 100% target this year.

Realizing that the legislation was seriously flawed, the current administration instituted a waiver process where states could be relieved of the unrealistic NCLB goals, but still required to move towards higher standards and better preparation of students.   Utah first sought and was granted the waiver on June 29, 2012. 

Now, some are advocating that we not seek waiver renewal and return to the standards of NCLB.  They acknowledge that districts would be required to use well over $20 million per year in different ways than they have planned, but for various reasons—some in my estimation are political appeasement—they are agitating to refuse waiver application.   If we do not do so this August, the requirements of NCLB will be instituted.

What are the reasons for continuing the waiver?

  • Without the waiver, virtually all Utah schools (charter and district) would be labeled inadequate.   Although our schools certainly have room for improvement to label them in that way is an exercise in negativity.  It would prove demoralizing and is inaccurate.  Our schools are filled with remarkable educators working miracles of improvement.
  • Already strapped with inadequate funding, Utah schools would see at least a $23 million impact as districts are required to redirect Title 1 funds.  Opponents of the waiver admit this disturbing truth and they intend to get the Legislature to makeup the missing dollars.  If the Legislature can come up with the additional money (without “robbing Peter to pay Paul”) why don’t they simply appropriate more financial support for education?    The $23 million would provide more than a 1% additional increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU) for all Utah students.
  • Making such a decision (especially in August) would instigate confusion and uncertainty in districts and charters (LEAs).  Hiring decisions would be disrupted.  Educators who have been the victims of government manipulation (state as well as federal) would once again feel their “chains being yanked.”  Morale would plummet.  LEAs identified in need of improvement or which have schools identified in need of improvement would be required to set aside up to 30% of their Title I funding (for transportation related to public school choice, supplemental educational services, and professional development). Most LEAs have already established budgets and made personnel decisions for the 2014-15 school year Title I program. Returning to the consequences of  NCLB just as the new school year is beginning would be disruptive to LEAs and force them to make decisions about which Title I services to eliminate in order to achieve the mandatory set-asides of funds.
  • The waiver allows for Utah flexibility in dealing with education needs.   We are developing a Utah accountability system, instead of following the Federal one.   Local districts use Title 1 funding as they see fit to meet the needs of students; NCLB mandates particular ways of addressing those needs.

What are the reasons for waiver discontinuation?

I am not the best person to state the reasons for discontinuation since I find it unwise; nevertheless, I posit the following:

  • Some believe that discontinuing the waiver will appease political opponents.  A vocal lobbyist group has been criticizing the Common Core.   Although I see the “Core” issue as separate, these advocates claim that getting out of the waiver will reduce federal involvement in Utah education.  This reasoning is strained to me: the waiver (although it still maintains adherence to certain educational principles) relieves Utah of following much more offensive criteria imposed by the Federal government.
  • Some suggest that the waiver may be unconstitutional.  I have little to say regarding this issue; this is only a question and has not been resolved.  Most recently, Governor Herbert has assigned the attorney general to investigate and report on that matter.
  • Some are concerned that the waiver may only be a temporary solution anyway.  To me, this is ironic.  Most actions by any government agency—local or state—can always be changed and is to a degree only temporary.

What is a minimum course for proceeding?

Time may prove discontinuation of the waiver a more appropriate course of action.  However, I believe no such action should be precipitously enacted by the State Board of Education for several reasons:

  • This decision is being promoted hastily with virtually no consultation and deliberation with local boards of education, educators, parent groups.   (The Utah school Superintendents Association voted unanimously to oppose the action.   The Utah School Boards Association has requested extension of the waiver.   The Utah PTA has shared their concerns and has encouraged “applying for the extension” with consideration of a later “exit strategy.”)  Interestingly, opponents of the waiver frequently site the illustration of North Dakota, a state that has not employed the waiver.  The North Dakota superintendent emphasized that their decision was made together with other education agencies, not almost unilaterally as some in Utah are currently promoting.
  • The waiver is not a permanent enactment; it can be discontinued at any time.   Why should politicians consider discontinuation now with little notice?   Why not deliberate carefully, obtain the replacement funding from the Legislature (not hope for it), and then consider the action? Discontinuation could occur in the future when adequate and thoughtful deliberation has taken place.
  • Education funding issues need to be addressed intelligently before further limiting the funding.   Again, the North Dakota comparison is faulty.  North Dakota statistics reveal vastly superior funding there including recent increases.  (Whereas, Utah has by far the lowest per pupil funding in the nation, North Dakota is above the national average.)  With superior funding, lost revenue is and would be far less significant.

From my point of view, seeking renewal of the waiver now is the best course.  I urge all readers to contact State School Board members and State legislators with your opinion.  For me, the haste, the financial implications, the value of flexibility, and the need for a more thoughtful and careful process–all speak strongly in favor of extension.