When Utah students and teachers return to school this year, they'll have at least one less thing to worry about: No Child Left Behind.
The U.S. Department of Education announced Friday that it has granted Utah's request for a waiver to key provisions of the decade-old, controversial, federal education law.
The announcement has many state leaders cheering, saying it will give Utah new control and flexibility to help students. Meanwhile, some fear the waiver will bind Utah to new Common Core academic standards an allegation state education leaders and the nation's top education official say is false.
Everyone agrees, however, that the waiver will mean big changes for Utah, getting rid of some of the most reviled parts of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Utah schools will no longer be subject to Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measurements or Program Improvement sanctions. It also means no more expectation that 100 percent of students score proficient in language arts and math by 2014 the ultimate goal of NCLB. It was a target many had decried as unrealistic.
"We're thrilled," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent. "This is huge for our state."
Gov. Gary Herbert also praised the waiver Friday in a statement: "This affirmation of local control in public education is good news for Utah, as well as schools, parents, teachers, and students. We don't need the federal government telling Utah what is best for Utah's children."
But that doesn't mean schools won't continue to be held accountable in Utah. In doing away with key parts of NCLB, Utah will use a new accountability system.
In exchange for the waiver, Utah had to promise to implement a plan to address college and career readiness for all students, school accountability, teacher evaluation and administrative burdens on schools.
Under that plan, high-performing Title I schools (those that get federal dollars for serving high percentages of poor students) will be recognized as "reward schools." The lowest performing 5 percent of Title I schools in Utah will be identified as "priority schools." And the next lowest-performing 10 percent of Title I schools will be known as "focus schools."
Title I schools will be placed into those categories based on student academic growth and achievement in language arts, math and science. For high schools, graduation rates will count as well. The designations will be based on how all students in a school perform, as well as how low-achieving kids perform as a group, as opposed to how kids perform by ethnic group, as is now the case under NCLB.
Priority and focus schools will continue to face consequences designed to help them improve. Eventually, to comply with a state law passed in 2011, Utah schools will receive letter grades based on the new measurements.
Park said the new system, which will be called UCAS (Utah Comprehensive Accountability System) will more accurately measure student academic growth. A goal of the state will be to cut in half the percentage of students who are not proficient in math and literacy over the next six years.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association (UEA) president, said the UEA is hopeful that as the state moves forward with its new accountability measures "we'll be able to have a system designed to help and support schools and kids."
She said UEA supports the waiver.
"Originally, the intent [of NCLB] was a good intent, but it was an unfunded mandate, and the emphasis on test scores, on measuring student learning was absolutely ridiculous," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.
But not everyone agrees. Some worry Utah is just trading one set of federal strings for another.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who for years has been a vocal opponent of NCLB, said she is concerned about the waiver partly because she believes it may tie Utah to Common Core academic standards. In Utah's waiver application, state education leaders said Utah would use the Common Core to address the requirement that states use standards aimed at readying students for college and careers.
The standards, which were developed as part of a states-led initiative and were voluntary to adopt, outline what students should know in each grade. Proponents argue the standards are more rigorous than Utah's current ones and can be dropped at any time. Opponents, however, say Utah has ceded local control over schools by adopting them.
"If we've just been granted a waiver and are free of some of the obligations of No Child Left Behind, I'm gratified," Dayton said Friday. "But if we're granted a waiver at the cost of further entanglements, I have great concerns."
Gayle Ruzicka, head of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said she believes the waiver binds Utah to the Common Core.
"This waiver is one of the most disastrous things that has happened to education in Utah since the history of federal involvement in education," she said Friday.
Both state and national education leaders, however, say the allegation is bogus.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when asked Friday by The Salt Lake Tribune during a conference call with reporters whether the waiver would commit Utah to Common Core standards, said, "It absolutely does not."
"That is just simply an absolute myth," Duncan said.
Duncan said part of the goal in issuing waivers was "to get out of the way wherever possible and let state and local leaders and districts figure out the best way to meet their students' educational needs."
Park also called such allegations "wrong." She pointed out that Virginia did not sign onto the Common Core but still was among the other four states to receive NCLB waivers Friday.
"This isn't about forcing Utah to do the Common Core," Park said. "Utah is choosing to do the Common Core because it's the right thing for Utah to do."
In May, the Utah PTA passed a resolution at its state convention supporting Utah's standards based on the Common Core. Deon Turley, Utah PTA education commissioner, called the waiver approval Friday "exciting news."
Utah is now among 24 states to earn waivers. Another 13 states' waiver applications are still being reviewed.
Now that Utah has a waiver for key provisions of No Child Left Behind, the state will implement a new accountability system. To see Utah's waiver application go to http://tinyurl.com/7kpuzec.
Under the new accountability system, high-performing Title I schools will be recognized as "reward schools." The lowest performing 5 percent will be identified as "priority schools." And the next lowest-performing 10 percent will be known as "focus schools."
Priority schools will face one of four options for making improvements including: replace the principal and half the teachers; convert the school to a charter; close it; or replace long-serving principals, improve the school through curriculum reform, train educators, extend learning time and other strategies.
Focus schools will be required to form leadership teams, notify parents and contract with outside support teams to implement plans to improve.