SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education voted Friday to apply again for a one-year waiver from No Child Left Behind to exempt the state from federal compliance mandates and to allow Title I funds to be used the way they are now.
If the U.S. Department of Education does not grant the waiver, Utah will not lose federal education dollars, but it would be required to direct a portion of those dollars toward academic turnaround programs.
State School Board members, however, will not seek a waiver if the Legislature grants a one-time request for $30 million to offset the effect on schools should federal dollars have to be redistributed. But a state budget proposal released Thursday indicated it was "wildly unlikely" lawmakers will approve the funding request, said Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction.
Smith said Utah schools will receive the same amount of federal funding whether or not a waiver is granted.
"The difference is if we accept the waiver, (schools) retain local flexibility to expend Title I dollars as they see fit," Smith said. If not, he said, "We would just be in uncharted territory."
Without the waiver, Utah schools would be compelled to comply with No Child Left Behind, mandating that every student in the state score proficiently on statewide tests. Failing schools would be required to divert federal dollars to after-school remediation programs, faculty and administrative shakeups, transporting students to complying schools, and potentially transforming into charter schools.
It is unclear how, or even if, those measures would be enforced if Utah wasn't granted a waiver or if an application wasn't submitted, Smith said.
A report by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said the state has control over its assessment and teacher evaluation systems, as well as its statewide academic standards. But in order to be eligible for a waiver, Utah and other states have been required to adopt "College and Career-ready Standards," such as the Common Core.
Utah adopted the Utah Core Standards in 2010, two years before its first waiver from No Child Left Behind. But a "plausible argument" exists that the waiver constitutes federal entanglement with Utah's standards, the attorney general's report states.
In previous waiver applications, and in a recent resolution to Utah's congressional delegation, the State School Board censured the apparent flaws in No Child Left Behind and asserted the state's right to direct its own education system without federal entanglement.
But the boldness of Utah's education leaders is putting on edge some parents and educators, who worry it might prompt the U.S. Department of Education to rethink Utah's exemption from No Child Left Behind provisions.
"There's language out there that's saying that this is a dare," Jason Benson, principal at Greenwood Elementary in the Alpine School District, told members of the board. "For you, it might be millions of dollars. For my kids, it's their lives. And I think you have a responsibility to consider that."
Board member Spencer Stokes said he hopes the Legislature will approve the $30 million appropriation to give the state a better ability to reason with federal education leaders in allowing more local control.
"I, like everybody else in the room, wish the federal government weren't involved in our lives and they would just pack up," Stokes said. "Should (the Legislature) make the decision that it's important to them as well, I think it would give us a lot more flexibility in how we approach failing schools."
In a 10-5 vote, the board approved the motion to apply for a waiver should the funding request not be met.
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