Education leaders will not ask for veto of school grading bill
SB271 • Bill would lay out how schools should be evaluated.
Published: March 20, 2013 09:15PM
Updated: May 31, 2013 11:36PM

The governor is receiving significant pressure to veto a school grading bill, but the state school board is one group that won’t be joining the fight.

After about two hours of debate, the board voted 5-5 on Wednesday against asking the governor to veto SB271. The bill lays out how Utah schools should be graded starting this year, but it mandates a different system than the one the State Office of Education has been working on since the original school grading law passed in 2011.

Opponents of the bill say it would create a system inferior to the one the State Office of Education has already designed, known as UCAS. They also say it could result in the state having two grading systems and that it was passed amid confusion caused by its late introduction, just two weeks before the end of the session.

Supporters, however, believe just the opposite. They say it wouldn’t necessarily result in two systems and would more fairly hold schools accountable for student achievement and growth.

Christine Kearl, the governor’s education director, said Wednesday the governor had not yet decided whether to veto SB271. But she said the opposition his office has received to the school grading bill is almost like that received last year over a controversial sex education bill.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who helped work on the legislation as well as the original law, said he doesn’t believe SB271 would create a system very different from UCAS. He also noted that because UCAS was never formally put into law, if the governor vetoed SB271, the state could end up with a grading system based on the original 2011 law. That original law would make it tougher for schools to achieve high grades than either UCAS or SB271.

“If I’m advising the governor at this point, I’m going to say, ‘If you veto the bill, you’ve got a worse situation,’” Niederhauser told the board.

But Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said there was much confusion in the House shortly before its 38-36 vote in favor of SB271.

“I am aware of certain representatives who said they probably would have voted against [SB271] had they known there would be two grading systems,” Hall said.

It’s still somewhat unknown whether the bill truly would mean two grading systems. Because of the bill’s late introduction, education leaders didn’t have time to run analyses to determine how closely the system in SB271 would mirror UCAS.

If the two systems are very similar then the state may be able to use just one system, said State Superintendent Martell Menlove. But if they aren’t similar then two systems may be required because the U.S. Department of Education has already given Utah permission to use UCAS as part of the state’s waiver to No Child Left Behind.

The main difference between UCAS and SB271 is how they would credit schools for individual student achievement growth. UCAS gives schools different amounts of credit for different amounts of academic growth over a year. But SB271 would give schools full credit for a year’s worth of academic growth and no credit for anything less than a full year of growth.

House members weren’t the only ones confused over the bill. Kearl acknowledged that much of the opposition over SB271 coming to the governor’s office is from people who don’t seem to understand it and are instead basing their arguments on an earlier version of the bill.

Board members on Wednesday expressed frustration that lawmakers didn’t discuss the bill earlier to give everyone more time to understand it. But state school board chairwoman Debra Roberts said perhaps the board should have pushed harder to find a lawmaker to run a bill that would have made UCAS law.

Board members considered Wednesday asking the governor to veto the bill and put it on a special session agenda to address concerns. But not enough members voted in favor of the motion for it to pass. Niederhauser said he’d be open to bringing the bill back in a special session if it ends up causing major problems but would otherwise prefer to consider changes to it next general session.