Commentary

Utah Stands Up for the Children

By Marie Gryphon
This article appeared on Reason Onlineon May 6, 2005.

On Monday, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. fired the first shot in what may become a national rebellion against the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Resisting intense veto pressure from President Bush and federal regulators, Huntsman signed into law a bill that will prioritize Utah’s own educational goals over the mandates of the federal act. To preserve its freedom to chart the future of its schools, the Beehive State, Huntsman signaled, is willing to say no to Washington’s money.

That’s not small change: U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings sternly warns that Utah risks losing up to $76 million in federal funds, or eight percent of the state’s education budget, if the law leads educators to disregard NCLB. But how much should Utah, and a growing number of other states, be willing to give up for the freedom to educate children without interference from federal bureaucrats?

“We share the same passion President Bush has for quality education,” said Utah Representative Margaret Dayton, who authored the measure, “The bottom line now is, who’s in charge of Utah’s education?”

Spellings employs a mixture of honey and vinegar in her negotiations with states. On one hand, she has promised “flexibility” in the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. But she will not waive its intensely prescriptive testing provisions. For example, too many special education students must take exams inappropriate to their needs. Moreover, she cannot change the faulty basic structure of a law that purports to let states create accountability regimens, but micromanages every step of that process.

On the other hand, Spellings engages NCLB critics in fierce public relations battles. Spellings called Connecticut officials “un-American” for daring to suggest that some No Child regulations fit poorly with Connecticut’s own accountability plan.

If a state complains about NCLB’s endless red tape, Spellings’ staff will search through hundreds of statistics to find the handful that paint the state in the worst possible light. These will find their way into ghostwritten op-eds in national publications. If a state asks for waivers of prescriptive guidelines that undermine state-level accountability systems, Spellings implies that the state does not care about its children’s education.

That states like Utah are resisting such carrots and sticks is inspiring, and may signal a sea change in the relationship between the federal and state governments when it comes to money and influence.

For half a century the federal government has used the power of the pocketbook, and the ability to borrow lavishly, to homogenize state policies about everything from schools to highways. The long run result is seldom better policy, because supplanting many state experiments with a single system thwarts the innovation that leads to improvement.

Often, state governments do not care because they have an incentive to maximize their budgets, not their effectiveness. For example, a federal law may provide 10 percent more funding in return for following regulations that will require the entire 10 percent to be spent on staff dedicated to filling out compliance forms.

In the real world, people would dismiss such a program as a waste of resources. But in government, such laws are welcome because they create additional jobs for state bureaucrats. Union leaders love this system because it benefits their members, and politicians love it because it benefits the unions. The fact that nothing productive is actually accomplished is beside the point.

By passing HB 1001, which prioritizes state educational goals at the risk of losing federal dollars, Utah has made the bold claim that education is too important for business as usual. Utah has concluded that its state accountability system best serves students, and has decided to pay more attention to how well children learn than to how many government jobs get created.

The Utah revolt may spread. Eight other legislatures, in Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont and Virginia, are now considering similar legislation.

Utah officials are quick to claim that Secretary Spellings is bluffing, and that the state’s $76 million is in no danger. They are probably right.

The Department of Education recently levied a $444,282 fine against Texas for intentional violations of NCLB. If the gesture was intended to induce compliance, it backfired. The fine is a drop in the bucket of Texas’ $33 billion public education budget. It suggests that states may defy NCLB for the price of a summer home.

But if the federal department does get tough, Utah should stand firm. States will never win the right to manage their own affairs as long as they remain addicted to federal dollars. If Utah shows that it is financially and politically possible to shrug off federal interference, other states may do the same. Both children and taxpayers would benefit from their courage.

Marie Gryphon is an education policy analyst with the Cato Institute.