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Utah School Board votes to renew Utah's federal waiver

Published August 9, 2014 10:39 am

Education • Common Core opponents are not happy, stage a protest rally.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah schools will not return to the much-despised federal education law, No Child Left Behind, when classes resume in coming weeks, the state school board decided Friday.

The board voted to seek a renewal of the state's waiver to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), pleasing the Utah PTA, the Utah Education Association, business leaders and all 41 district superintendents who had urged renewal.

The decision disappointed those who consider the waiver federal overreach that binds Utah to Common Core academic standards. Many of the critics protested outside as the board convened Friday.

Without the waiver, almost all Utah schools would have failed to meet the law's goals this year. That's because under NCLB, 100 percent of students were expected to be proficient in math and language arts by this year — a goal many consider unrealistic.

Also, Utah schools likely would have had to shift about $26 million now being used to help struggling students back to old programs and strategies, possibly in other schools.

Board Vice Chairman David Thomas said he had asked state leaders earlier this summer if they would be willing to hold a special legislative session to allocate $26 million to help schools deal with a possible non-renewal of the waiver. But a special session is not going to happen, he said Friday.

"We need to give some degree of stability to the school system to move forward," Thomas said of renewing the waiver, "and at the same time we needed to represent our state board control over state programs."

The board voted to renew the waiver, provided the U.S. Department of Education be told that the Utah school board "reserves its absolute and exclusive right" to modify its academic standards, testing, accountability system and educator evaluation system without negatively affecting the waiver.

Thomas said it's unlikely the feds would yank Utah's waiver if they disagree with those assertions. If they do disagree, they likely would give the state a warning, and the board could decide what to do next, he said.

The vote Friday followed nearly an hour of public comment about the issue.

In exchange for the waiver, Utah had to promise to implement a plan addressing college and career readiness, school accountability and teacher evaluation, among other things.

Dawn Davies, Utah PTA president-elect, urged the board to hold off on dropping the waiver. She said it's not enough to simply hope lawmakers will fill in the financial gaps later.

"Please, let's get the funds in hand before we rely on the word of anyone who says, 'We'll do our best,'" Davies said.

And Ann Geary, a Logan district board member speaking on behalf of the Utah School Boards Association, said not renewing the waiver amounted to dismantling opportunities for struggling students "so that you can make a political statement."

"Our children should not be used as pawns in such politics," Geary said.

But more than 50 parents protested waiver renewal in front of the State Office of Education on Friday, saying it further binds Utah to the federal government.

Lacking action from Congress to change No Child Left Behind, the U.S. Department of Education has been offering waivers to states.

Those against waiver renewal protested Common Core academic standards.

In accepting the waiver, Utah agreed to use Common Core standards, which outline concepts students should learn in each grade in math and language arts to be ready for college and careers. State education leaders have repeatedly said that the waiver does not bind the state to the core, but opponents of the waiver disagree.

Protesters wore green shirts bearing the message "No More Common Core," and they chanted the same in front of the office.

Payson mom Siri Davidson said she disagrees with the conceptual way math is often taught under the new standards. She said Utah needs to get out from under federal control.

The Common Core standards were not written nor required by the federal government, although the feds have encouraged their use.

"[The waiver] is just another band-aid on top of the problem," Davidson said. "We need Utah to be in control of education."

Provo parent Lynda Roper said she also worried that renewing the waiver would bind Utah to the Common Core standards.

"They are indoctrinating children with ideas that are against our values," Roper said.

Common Core proponents contend that the standards do not teach anything contrary to Utah values. Rather, they only proscribed topics schools should cover, such as fractions, nouns, and telling time,

The board's decision came just weeks after Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he is asking the Utah Attorney General's Office to re-examine what, if any, federal entanglements have been involved in Utah's adoption of the standards.

lschencker@sltrib.com