Utah Schools Fight 'No Child Left Behind'

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Utah has led state opposition to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Now U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is applying pressure, saying Utah should worry more about educating minority students than concerns about the law. Jennifer Brundin of NPR station KUER reports.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Utah has taken the lead among states opposing the No Child Left Behind education law. Earlier this spring, legislators passed a bill saying that state education policies supercede those in the federal law, but the Bush administration is fighting back with harsh words and a warning from the US secretary of Education. From member station KUER, Jenny Brundin reports.

JENNY BRUNDIN reporting:

Utah students score well on national tests, and the state has a deep tradition of local control of schools. So many lawmakers resent what they say are the intrusive requirements of No Child Left Behind.

State Representative STEVE MASCARO (Republican, Utah): I'd just as soon they take the stinking money and go back to Washington with it. Let us resolve our education problems ourself.

BRUNDIN: That's State Representative Steve Mascaro during April's special debate when lawmakers voted to ignore requirements in the federal law that conflict with state law.

Rep. MASCARO: There's not a person in this room that doesn't care about the education of our children, who will not work tirelessly until our children are educated the way that we believe they need to be educated, not the way Washington says they need to be educated.

BRUNDIN: But Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says that instead of worrying about No Child Left Behind, states like Utah should be worrying about why white kids do so much better in their schools than minority kids, and she's made it clear in a recent speech that she's willing to play hard ball with the $76 million in federal education money that Utah receives.

Secretary MARGARET SPELLINGS (Education Department): So if Utah's legislators believe that this is the right move, they must explain their actions to the state's Hispanic parents and taxpayers. They will have to tell them why they refused the federal government's stinking money as one legislator put it.

BRUNDIN: Spellings says the achievement gap between white and minority students in Utah is among the widest in the nation. Latino fourth-graders here have lower reading skills than Latinos in all but two states and the District of Columbia. A major goal of federal aid money and No Child Left Behind is to help poor and minority students catch up, kids like the ones in Ellie Brady's(ph) classroom at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City. It's the end of a long day at the end of a long year, and Brady is looking at a picture of some of her students on her desk.

Ms. ELLIE BRADY (Teacher): These girls are from Liberia. Their native language is Krahn. These two boys speak Somali Bantu. These students are from Mexico.

BRUNDIN: Despite Utah's high test score rankings, most of these students will fail their end-of-the-year tests, and it's not just newcomers who struggle. Less than half of the state's Native Americans and Hispanic students passed those tests last year. Compare that with 80 percent of white students. A Latino advocacy group has filed a lawsuit over the issue. State school superintendent Patti Harrington agrees that Utah has a serious achievement gap but she adds that the reason it's so wide is because many students here score extremely high.

Ms. PATTI HARRINGTON (State School Superintendent): We do not apologize for the fact that we have kids that are topping the charts. We must, however, rivet our attention around the achievement gap, those kids that are still struggling.

BRUNDIN: Though lawmakers pumped more money into reading programs last year, Utah still spends the least per student in the nation. Harrington concedes the state has been slow to address the problem.

Ms. HARRINGTON: I worry about the appetite for closing the achievement gap financially in the state. I personally have a huge desire to make that happen. I think the cultural differences is a challenge for some in our state.

(Soundbite of children)

BRUNDIN: And those cultural differences are growing rapidly. The number of Latino students in Salt Lake schools is soaring, and many of them are new arrivals, like Cesar(ph), a seventh-grader at Northwest Middle School who arrived from Mexico last June.

CESAR (Student): (Spanish spoken)

BRUNDIN: He says he understands when teachers slow down, and his reading is coming along. Today his classmates are reading from a book about Martin Luther King. Cesar's turn.

CESAR: ...nation where they will not be judged (pronounced hudged) by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Ms. BRADY: I think Cesar will find high school difficult. Do you think high school is going to be hard, Cesar?

CESAR: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BRADY: But he's here and he tries.

BRUNDIN: Despite all the opposition, the No Child Left Behind Act has focused attention in Utah and around the country on children like Cesar.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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