Will Utah Fight for Parental Control After Feds Deny ESSA Opt-Out Waiver?

So much for returning educational autonomy to the states.

In his inaugural address, President Trump sounded a clarion call for transferring power from the federal government to the people:

[T]oday we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.  What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Fine words, but they haven’t been put into action with respect to education policy. 

The most recent example comes from Utah. In early May the Utah State Board of Education requested a waiver, which U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is statutorily empowered to grant, from a federal testing requirement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). That mandate is that states include at least 95% of their students in the statewide tests. This provision is intended to ensuring the reliability of federally mandated accountability measures (notice how often the words “require” and “mandate” come up in discussions of the supposedly state-empowering ESSA). If its testing participation rate drops below 95%, the state must count every non-tested student as zero or non-proficient. Although highly misleading, this calculation ratchets down the state’s “academic achievement indicator” and can result in various negative federal consequences.

Utah requested the waiver because state law specifically protects the rights of parents to opt their children out of statewide assessments. It also forbids the State Board of Education from imposing negative consequences on schools or employees because of the number of opt-outs. 

One reason for the rising opt-out numbers is discontent with the SAGE (Student Assessment for Growth and Excellence) test. SAGE was developed for Utah by the American Institutes for Research, which is not an academic-assessment company but rather a behavioral-research organization. In increasing numbers, parents have concluded they don’t want their children subjected to problem-riddled testing that hasn’t been proven academically valid – especially when, as shown by Dr. Christopher Tienken, Common Core testing is designed more to centralize control over education policy than to benefit student learning.

The clash here, then, was between parents’ inherent right to govern their children’s education and indeed protect them from harm, as explicitly protected by state law, and federal mandates. Guess which won?

On May 31 the U.S. Department of Education (USED) denied the request for a waiver. USED found that a waiver wouldn’t “advance academic achievement” as required by the statutory waiver provision, because failure to force test participation would mean not all students were subjected to federally incentivized standards and federally mandated tests. 

Significantly, the denial letter came from Jason Botel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, appointed to that position by DeVos. Mr. Botel is a shining example of the problematic personnel she has brought to the department – he publicly praised Common Core (which DeVos’s boss vigorously opposes), he supports a strong federal role in education, and he has spoken favorably of the radical group Black Lives Matter. His pro-federal-power predilections are clear in this dismissal of the Utah waiver request. 

Utah isn’t the only state to be slapped down by federal bureaucrats over the test-participation mandate. Colorado suffered the same fate until it reached a compromise with USED in early May, essentially establishing two different accountability systems – one state, one federal. And rather than fight for state and parental rights, Colorado educrats agreed to come up with more incentives to lure students into the statewide assessments.

The question is, will the Utah State Board of Education wilt under federal pressure, or will it stand and fight? At a hearing on this issue, local school board member Wendy Hart pointed out what’s at stake here – if the State Board backs down, thus forcing more students to undergo behavioral assessment aligned with Common Core, it will fail to uphold not only state law and the 10th Amendment to the federal Constitution but also the fundamental right of parents to educate and protect their children. 

Utah law is clear about who’s in charge of education: “A student’s parent or guardian is the primary person responsible for the education of the student, and the state is in a secondary and supportive role to the parent or guardian.” The Utah Supreme Court has identified “parents’ inherent right and authority to rear their own children” as “fundamental to our society and . . . basic to our constitutional order. . . .” In other words, what President Trump promised at his inauguration has actual statutory and judicial force in Utah.

Will the State Board of Education stand on these principles? Will Betsy DeVos? If not, both of them should be called to account. This should be a YUGE issue in Utah political races in November.

One thought on “Will Utah Fight for Parental Control After Feds Deny ESSA Opt-Out Waiver?

  1. I’m in Utah, and something’s got to give here. We either realize that there are less expensive ways to run a school (do they really need janitors and gardeners and cooks–can’t that be a class? Can’t building a gym be replaced with running downtown? Can’t teachers just learn first aid and basic counseling and then refer out if things are bad?) Get more parents in charge of their children’s education so public class sizes are smaller without parents needing to pay too much* and schools don’t need to continually add on or give incentives to overworked teachers to stay.

    OR we abandon freedom and continue to be pulled down. I’ll be watching this closely, thanks for keeping people from individual states up-to-date on their own developments.

    (*I’m not sure vouchers are the best answer since they’ll likely come with strings and raise the price, class size, and freedom of private schools and just get co-opted by the feds in the end like they did in the 20s–I know its weird to not want that when I prefer non-state education, and am poor–some states do tax discounts and ESA’s, I’m thinking that’s better)

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