SALT LAKE CITY
If you seek a window into conservatism’s current consternations, look into Utah. The nation’s reddest state is rebelling against President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.
Only three states have not challenged in some way NCLB’s extension of federal supervision over education grades K through 12. But no state has done so with as much brio as Utah, which is insurrectionary even though last year 87 percent of its schools fulfilled NCLB’s requirement of demonstrating “adequate yearly progress.” Utah, you see, is unique.
Gov. Jon Huntsman, 45, is a seventh-generation Utahn. A former diplomat, he believes what the proverb asserts, that “a soft answer turneth away wrath.” He says, tactfully, that perhaps Margaret Spellings, the U.S. secretary of education, “has not had time to read our legislation.”
Huntsman says the issue is “sovereignty.” And, he adds, Washington not only is insensitive to Utah’s “pioneer ethos,” “we are always taken advantage of because we are a consistently and reliably Republican state.”
The Bush administration calls the 1,100-page NCLB law “the most important federal education reform in history.” It is a federal attempt at large-scale behavior modification, using sunlight to cause embarrassment and embarrassment to prompt reforms. Standardized tests are supposed to produce data that, when “disaggregated,” will reveal the different attainments of particular schools and different cohorts of pupils. Unsatisfactory results will, in theory, shame communities into insisting on improvements.
Many Utahns, however, take umbrage at the idea that it is the business of Washington — a city that they think frequently embarrasses Americans — to make them embarrassed about themselves. Their reasons suggest why reforms devised for a continental nation often collide with the nation’s durable, and valuable, regional differences.
Not all Utahns are Mormons. Almost 11 percent are Hispanics, heading for 20 percent by 2020, and there is a significant population of Pacific islanders. But the state’s singular tone is set by the Mormons.
An earnest lot, they are never more so than in their respect for the injunction to be fruitful and multiply. And among the 50 states, Utah has the second-highest proportion of students grades K through 12 in public schools and more home-schooled children than children in private schools. This is largely because of the state’s cultural homogeneity.
Utah, writes Michael Barone in The Almanac of American Politics, “is the only state that largely continues to live by the teachings of a church.” Utahns believe they have high community standards and that their public schools and universities — which receive 100 percent of the state’s personal and corporate income tax revenues — adhere to them. They might be wrong, but they rightly think that, under federalism, it is their traditional right to be wrong.
Washington, which often is a busybody, is not just being that with NCLB. Chester Finn, one of America’s foremost experts on school reforms, notes that NCLB came from the seventh reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. According to Finn, NCLB says, in effect, this: “If you keep doing what you have been doing, you won’t get any better.”
Utah takes its stand against federal usurpation by standing on the 1979 federal law that states: “The establishment of the Department of Education shall not increase the authority of the federal government over education or diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the states.”
But government metastasizes. A new Education Department commission whose focus is higher education is chaired by Charles Miller, a Texan who helped develop that state’s accountability program that was a precursor of NCLB. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Miller “insists he is not out to regulate colleges, but only to hold them accountable to taxpayers.” Got it?