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It’s no secret that a significant portion of Utah’s history involves some not-so-subtle conflicts between the state and federal governments. Whether regarding religion or land use, Utah citizens have never been shy about standing up for their right to govern their territory and themselves as they see fit. And while it has nothing to do with land use, Utah’s recent challenge to the educational policy of No Child Left Behind looks like the most recent manifestation of the conflict between state and federal governments in the persistently independent West.

Another Sagebrush Rebellion in Utah?

It’s no secret that a significant portion of Utah’s history involves some not-so-subtle conflicts between the state and federal governments. Whether regarding religion or land use, Utah citizens have never been shy about standing up for their right to govern their territory and themselves as they see fit. And while it has nothing to do with land use, Utah’s recent challenge to the educational policy of No Child Left Behind looks like the most recent manifestation of the conflict between state and federal governments in the persistently independent West.

The challenge to the federal policy does not imply a liberal bent—Utah is the most Republican state in the union, a fact that makes the state legislature’s May approval of a bill challenging NCLB’s scope more than a little ironic. This locally Republican-led attack on a federal Republican policy is a clear indication that growing concerns about the law’s efficacy have very little to do with party line politics and more with intense opposition against federal intrusion into Utah’s educational system.

On the surface, Utah perspectives on NCLB seem to fall into two distinct, though interconnected, camps. On one side are the state’s rights advocates, those who, like Gov. Jon Huntsman and State Representative Margaret Dayton (R-Orem), are interested in keeping Washington’s involvement in local classrooms to a minimum. According to Governor Huntsman’s Website, doing what’s best for Utah schools requires maintaining local control and “eliminat[ing] the clutter in the classroom created by unnecessary regulations like the No Child Left Behind Act.”?

But with the feds threatening to withdraw $76 million in funding if Utah doesn’t comply with the law, Huntsman continues to look for ways to compromise with Washington. HB 1001, the bill challenging NCLB that passed in the State Legislature in late April, does not reject NCLB outright. Instead, Utah’s lawmakers settled for a dual system that attempts to pair both state and federal guidelines for assessment, accountability and data collection. However, the key is final authority: when conflicts arise, Utah’s laws trump NCLB’s edicts.

On the other side of the issue are those who worry about the price of backing away from a federal law that seems, at least on the surface, to offer some means of addressing a major area of concern in Utah—the achievement gap between white and minority students. In fact, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has focused her attack on Utah’s noncompliance by accusing the state of failing to attend to the needs of its growing minority population. In a press release from April 20, 2005, following the passing of HB 1001, Spellings denounced Utah’s decision, saying that “States across the nation who have embraced No Child Left Behind have shown progress: student achievement is rising and the achievement gap is closing. The same could be true in Utah, whose achievement gap between Hispanics and their peers is the third largest in the nation and has not improved significantly in over a decade.”?

And there are plenty of groups (such as the Utah Education Network) and individuals within Utah that agree, at least to some extent, with Spellings’ assessment. Enrique Alemán Jr., professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Utah, is convinced that working with NCLB is the best thing for everyone involved. As a member of the Governor’s special task force on the education achievement gap, Alemán believes Utah’s policy-makers could use NCLB to highlight issues and problem areas, such as the achievement gap between white and minority students. While, according to Alemán, “some people on the legislature don’t feel like it’s a major issue and are more focused on school choice and competition,”? there are others (himself included) who see Utah’s achievement gap as “a good opportunity to address the needs a growing population of people that have not always been here [in Utah].”?

He believes that this problem provides an occasion to reexamine the pitfalls of the current system and look for ways we can “do things better.”? And while he agrees that certain elements of NCLB might be difficult for individual states to swallow, he sees no reason that the law shouldn’t be used as a more of a framework. “If the state wants to tailor NCLB to the Utah context they can,”? he says. All Utah lawmakers need to do is “take the same basic ingredients and change them in certain ways to address this state’s population.”?

But first, Utah must overcome what he sees as the “biggest hurdle”? standing in the way of improving its public education—a deep-seated fear of criticism. Utah schools “just don’t want to make data public,”? says Alemán, “they don’t want to open themselves up to public critique and are reluctant to start a dialogue that might allow them to work through these problems.”? Under NCLB, this data, namely student test scores, must be a matter of public record. In fact, anyone willing to spend a bit of time online clicking their way through the bureaucratic maze can find these numeric summaries of student achievement.

Perhaps the privacy issue is the true driving force behind Utah’s desire to keep Washington out of their schools. While Utah’s achievement gap is significant, it is not drastically worse than other states facing a similarly recent influx of minority students. With so much public attention focused on the minority issue, however, a few other interesting statistics remain largely under-reported, an “embarrassment”? factor that George Will questions in a recent column.

For instance, Utah’s scores in student achievement across the board used to be amongst the highest in the country while their per-capita spending remained impressively low. In recent years, Utah’s nationwide ranking in both per-capita spending and student achievement have plummeted. For 2004-2005, Utah ranks 50th out of 50 states in per-pupil spending on public education, 50th out of 50 in number of teachers per student, and is showing steady decline in student performance in the nation for overall quality of education—data the state must want broadcast as little as possible.

In light of the numbers, it is tempting to draw a connection between these unflattering statistics and Utah’s desire to maintain more local control over data collection and record keeping. Although Utah cannot keep educational data from being a matter of public record, the dual system of U-PASS and NCLB standards will almost certainly make it more difficult to determine with any clarity the exact areas and districts where Utah schools may be failing, a fact Spellins made sure to point out in her press release. “Turning back the clock and returning to the pre-NCLB days of fuzzy accountability and hiding children in averages will do nothing to help the students who are currently enrolled in Utah’s schools.”?

With that said, NCLB’s focus on assessment (testing) seems to some as though it isn’t addressing the real problems with our nation’s schools. As University of Utah Education Professor Don Kauchak, “It doesn’t matter how many times you weigh the cow; it doesn’t make it any fatter—in other words, testing doesn’t improve instruction.”? And while no one can argue that data collection and benchmarking are important tools for monitoring and initiating change, it is unlikely that federal standards will be enough to affect change across our increasingly diverse state and country. While Kauchak admits that the achievement gap is “a very real and persistent problem in Utah,”? he wonders how we can continue to ask schools to “overcome poverty, homelessness, and poor home environments.”?

Because NCLB requires that schools break out scores by demographic groups (such as ESL and Special Education students), it is easy to see how the current system is failing to address the needs of minority students. However, with statistical segregation any single group of students failing to pass National Achievement Tests can cause their school to “fail”? as well. In practice, this leads to an awful lot of student shuffling—something everyone agrees is almost never in the best interest of the children involved. And while Professor Alemán’s idea of working with the structures set out by NCLB seems to be heading in the right direction, Utah lawmakers are also right to question the specific requirements of the law.

Like everything that has preceded it, NCLB is far from a fail-proof solution to our nation’s educational woes. In a democracy such as ours, it is everyone’s responsibility to scrutinize these pieces of federal legislation thoroughly. Optimistic supporters of this law might be doing what they can to make the best of a bad situation, but it’s more likely that our idealistic goals for American education will never be fully realized through NCLB.

About Amy Seigel

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