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Utah plan ‘not mindless compliance’ to federal education act, state superintendent says

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

FILE – Superintendent Sydnee Dickson speaks with students at Lincoln Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30, 2016. Utah’s plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act is "not mindless compliance" to federal mandates, according to the state superintendent of public instruction. On Sept. 8, the Utah State Board of Education is expected to act on the plan.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act is "not mindless compliance" to federal mandates, according to the state superintendent of public instruction.

On Sept. 8, the Utah State Board of Education is expected to act on the plan, which is essentially an application for $123 million in federal funds for programs that assist children experiencing homelessness, live in poverty or whose parents are migrant farmworkers, among other initiatives. The federal funding also supports professional development for teachers.

Utah’s 127-page draft, more than a year in the making, also includes the state’s latest public school accountability program spelled out in SB220, passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year.

Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, in a recent update to members of the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee, said state education leaders view the Every Student Succeeds Act as a funding source that helps the state fulfill its responsibilities to students.

"Without the funding and without some of the strategy we put into our ESSA plan, we think we would be very remiss and falling short on our duty to provide our students with equity, which is really is really one of our board’s moral imperatives moving forward," Dickson said.

Once the final plan is reviewed by Gov. Gary Herbert and approved by the Utah State Board of Education, the school board has until Sept. 18 to submit it to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

In the past, states applied for funding for the various federal title programs in a program-specific way. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, readers will consider the plan in its entirety, although there will be an opportunity for state education officials to discuss the plan in further detail and to answer federal evaluators’ questions, said state Deputy Superintendent Patty Norman.

Dickson said some states are "really chafing that this is something that they’re creating, and it’s something new and it’s driving all the work in their state," she said.

That’s not the case for Utah because it already has a strategic plan, Education Elevated, and the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act compliance plan "aligns with our strategic plan, especially our three moral imperatives that drive our plan: equity, quality learning and systems values," Dickson said.

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"The plan is really only what is minimally required. Our schools, our districts and our charter schools are really engaged in very strategic work to get at closing the achievement gap," she said.

Still, Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said he is concerned that the review will require Utah to comply with other federal requirements.

"Do you think this is going to be a full, fair and stand-alone review of just those areas on their merits, or has it been your experience at the federal level that they’ll try to bleed over into other areas and try to leverage these funds to get us to do what they want in other areas?" he asked.

Local control and limited resources are two key consideration under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Dickson said.

"They’re interpreting ESSA with exactness as they look at the terminology," she said.

Six state plans have been approved by federal education officials, and another 10 are in process.

State superintendents who have pushed back at evaluators’ requests "seem to be able to navigate those waters and get their plans passed," Dickson said.

As Utah prepares to give final approval to its plan, which is the product of some 25 meetings and the input of some 500 participants, state education officers nationwide are concerned that President Donald Trump’s "skinny budget" proposal threatens funding for some title programs that are part of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

If federal funding that supports effective instruction were "to go away, that would be a significant expense to our (local education agencies)," Dickson said.

"That is in many cases their only source of professional development or helping teachers become highly qualified. We’re very concerned about that going away."

Other programs that may be at risk are community learning centers.

"That is really highly targeted at some of our most vulnerable students," Dickson said.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, said some constituents of the Utah Legislature say the state should not accept federal funding to support its education system.

"If you refuse the money, then where do we come up with $123 million to help these folks? That is always a challenge," Dickson said.

Federal funds tied to the Every Student Succeeds Act application "are targeted to go to the most needy sectors of our student population, those who are in the most need in terms of preparing our children and looking out for their needs, am I correct?" Snow said.

"Yes," Dickson replied.

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