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Rolly: Grades the latest attack on schools

Published September 7, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Legislators and other supporters of the report card for schools released to the public the other day can crow all they want about transparency and accountability, but I see mounting evidence it's simply the latest attack on public education from those who lost the voucher fight in Utah six years ago.

Ever since voters repealed in a ballot referendum the Legislature's 2007 bill to give tax credits for private school tuition, the proponents of vouchers have demonized public education and pushed every year to funnel taxpayer money to private vendors.

The school grading bill was passed in the last legislative session after its details were kept secret until the final days. It was the stepchild of a 2011 bill sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser that didn't pass after much opposition from the education community.

Neiderhauser, R-Sandy, now president of the Senate, met with all the stakeholders for months after that bill to work on an assessment program called the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, which educators say is a more accurate way to measure success in the schools.

The president of the Utah Education Association, Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, says Niederhauser stopped meeting with those groups about UCAS, which did pass the Legislature and serves as an alternate grading system, and the letter grade bill popped up not long after.

The bill's sponsor this year was Sen. Stuart Adams, yet when several stakeholders posed specific questions to Adams about the bill, he referred them to Judi Clark, executive director of Utah Parents for Choice in Education, one of the staunchest advocates for vouchers and a continuing voice in the movement to shift authority away from traditional schools toward more private sector-type formats.

Clark has been in the middle of legislative initiatives to spend taxpayer money on private vendors offering various software programs in the classroom and to assess teachers and schools.

Those vendor-backed programs largely have their roots in the American Legal Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative collaboration of businesses and state legislators whose financial backing comes from the same deep-pocketed financiers who have pushed voucher legislation throughout the country.

ALEC also is a backer of letter-grade report cards for schools whose proponents say will give parents valuable information about their schools.

Those who favored vouchers and letter-grade school report cards are the same interests who have pushed hard for expansion of charter schools, which takes supervision of schools away from traditional school districts and places it with community boards or councils.

And while Clark denied to The Salt Lake Tribune that there is a plan to use the school report cards to trigger parent-backed initiatives to turn failing schools into charters, such a plan was included in the master study resolution passed by the Legislature last March. That means it was slated to be discussed during the Legislature's interim meetings this year to decide which ideas should be offered as bills in the 2014 session.

It hasn't come up in interim meetings so far, possibly because Gallagher-Fishbaugh's complaints brought it to light. But the fact that it was placed on the study resolution indicates somebody's been thinking about it. —