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With wrung hands and held noses, the Utah School Board on Friday agreed to request an extended waiver from No Child Left Behind.
Board members had hoped to avoid renewing the state's waiver by requesting $30 million from the Legislature to cover penalties under the controversial federal law. But that request was excluded from a preliminary education budget lawmakers released this week.
"It does not appear that any appropriation for that $30 million request was made," said state Superintendent Brad Smith.
Board members voted 10-5 to seek a one-year waiver extension. The board's vote included a caveat that the waiver would be abandoned if lawmakers amend their budget and approve additional funding for Utah schools.
Absent a waiver, effectively every public school in the state would be declared failing under No Child Left Behind, Smith said, and potentially required to divert federal funding to mandated school turnaround efforts.
By continuing the waiver, Utah school districts would maintain control over how federal dollars are allocated, particularly for programs that target at-risk children.
"They retain flexibility to spend those dollars as they see fit," Smith said.
Board member Linda Hansen said the waiver allows local administrators to identify and help struggling schools, rather than rely on blanket definitions by the federal government.
"Under the waiver, we identify the correct schools and the correct schools get the help," she said. "Under [No Child Left Behind], we would identify the wrong schools and the money would go to the wrong kids."
Utah first received a waiver in 2012, when the Obama administration began offering states flexibility from federal law in exchange for locally-developed school improvement strategies. The waivers have generated significant controversy, with the Obama administration being accused of circumventing the legislative process and using the waivers to coerce states into adopting reforms including teacher evaluations and the Common Core State Standards.
Board member Leslie Castle expressed frustration with the political rhetoric that pits states' rights against the federal government. She favored renewing the state's waiver, but urged her colleagues to refrain from statements critical of federal overreach.
"I am not going to be voting in favor of anything that plays to this nonsense that somehow our relationship with the federal government is crazy and something we're trying to get out of," she said.