Child' Rebellion Picking up Momentum
by Ronnie Lynn, The Salt Lake Tribune, February 5, 2004
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President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law is gaining
traction, and Republicans -- even in GOP strongholds such as
Utah -- are among those digging in deepest.
The schism sets the stage for an unusual confrontation between
administration officials and Utah legislators, who have taken
the strongest action to date against the education-reform law
that the president touts as one of his top domestic
A Utah House committee last week unanimously advanced a bill
sponsored by Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, to opt out of the law
and forfeit at least $103 million it provides for programs and
services that target disadvantaged students. House Bill 43
probably won't be debated on the floor until after a meeting
Friday between lawmakers and officials from the U.S. Department
Utah isn't alone.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,
Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Indiana, Virginia, Wisconsin
and Vermont have joined Democratic counterparts in a handful of
other states in launching measures that oppose provisions of the
Some observers say the bipartisan backlash could spell trouble
for Bush this November.
"The president thought this bill would help him with his
re-election, but I believe he gained maximum credit on this bill
on the day he signed it," said Jack Jennings, director of the
Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank. "Now that
we're into implementing a lofty law with difficult provisions,
he will not get the credit he hoped to get, and, in fact, he
might be tarnished by the controversies."
Beltway Republicans, meanwhile, say the rebellion in the states
is directed at the U.S. Department of Education, not Bush.
Department officials interpreted the law too narrowly when they
developed guidelines for state implementation, said U.S. Rep.
Chris Cannon, R-Utah.
"The department has the flexibility to take care of states like
Utah. We need the bureaucrats to figure out Utah does a pretty
good job and we want to do it our way," he said. "It's also
clear the White House does not want the state that had [one of]
the largest margins for Bush [in the 2000 election] backing out
on a program."
A Utah political scientist says the state measures do target
Bush -- at least partly.
"This is one of those issues where there's a tension between
what a party would like to do and what its ideological roots
are," said Kelly Patterson, an associate professor and head of
Brigham Young University's political science department. "Local
control. That's the rub. He had to show national leadership, and
that means treading on states."
Dayton and Utah Republican leaders have taken the unusual step
of refusing to discuss HB43 publicly until after their meeting
Friday with federal officials. Dayton has said the law's federal
intrusion, unrealistic expectations and potential drain on state
school funds prompted her to sponsor the legislation.
Congress passed the law with bipartisan support in 2001, but
many Democrats -- including presidential candidates John Kerry
of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have
softened their endorsements after seeing how the law has
affected schools. Both say schools need more federal funding to
carry out the mandates.
A Kerry spokesman said Wednesday that the Democratic
front-runner would reform the law to include more money and
"assure schools focus on teaching to high standards and not
drill-and-kill test prep."
States, districts and schools have been complaining about the
law's strict testing requirements since the Education Department
began issuing its guidelines. Even so, the Bush administration
has resisted pleas to amend the law or its guidelines.
"Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by
weakening standards and accountability," said Bush in last
month's State of the Union speech. "Yet the results we require
are really a matter of common sense. We expect third-graders to
read and do math at the third-grade level, and that's not asking
McKell Withers, superintendent of Salt Lake City schools,
likened HB43 to a game of chicken, and he had some advice for
Utah lawmakers: Swerve -- because Washington won't.
"There is a legend [at the Legislature] that if you time this
just right you can opt out but not lose any funding," Withers
said. "But I doubt [the federal government] is going to say, 'We
thank you for making this a huge political issue, we accept your
apology and here's your money.' "
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