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Federal Rules Would Go Out the Window with Arizona Bill

Those who decry the federal influence on K-12 education as an asphyxiating one have a chance to cheer: The Arizona House of Representatives has approved a bill declaring that all school districts and charters in the state that don't receive any cash from Uncle Sam can ignore federal requirements when it comes to everything from content standards to teacher evaluations.

Yes, you read that correctly. The bill that would cut off Washington's power over certain schools and districts is House Bill 2318, and it passed the House on March 7 by a 36-23 vote. The relevant language begins on Page 5 of the bill, and says that the state department of education, when it comes to charters and districts not getting federal dollars, "shall grant exemption from federal rules, regulations, and statutes or state rules, regulations and statutes funded by federal appropriations, including academic standards, state or federal assessments, teacher and principal evaluations requirements and student and course tracking systems." Charters and districts would have to submit a letter to the department requesting this exemption, along with financial statements showing that they don't get federal money.

The caveat here is that these districts and charters would still have to abide by federal regulations regarding health, safety, civil rights, and insurance, according to the bill, which was introduced by GOP Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. In total, roughly 130 districts and charters in Arizona don't receive federal money, and would in theory be eligible to apply for exemptions from federal rules, the Associated Press reported. (There are just over 600 school districts and charters in the state.)

You can imagine the response from people who are very concerned that the bill would jeopardize the federal funding the state receives from Washington, which generally requires "compliance" with certain conditions for states to receive its money. Stressing that Farnsworth was embarking on a futile attempt to essentially cherry-pick certain schools, Democratic Rep. Eric Meyer said, "When we exempt these few schools from complying with federal regulations, all of our schools in the state are at risk for losing federal funding."

Farnsworth dismissed these criticisms pretty bluntly: "Anytime I try to do anything, that's what I hear: 'We are going to lose federal funding, we are going to lose federal funding,'" ... There's really not a lot of risk, but if it does happen, then at some point, we have to say, 'This is the best policy for our state, and we will defend it if we need to.'"

The part of the bill about student "tracking systems" is also a concern that's cropped up in arguments from people ranging from advocates for traditional public schools like Leonie Haimson to conservative writers like Michelle Malkin with respect to the Common Core State Standards, which Arizona has adopted.

Arizona is, in fact, a governing state in PARCC, one of two federally funded consortia developing tests for the common core. It's not clear from the bill exactly how, or if, what Farnsworth wants would affect those tests.

Money from the U.S. Department of Education is already a concern with the federal sequestration in effect: Jeff Gadd, a staffer with the Arizona Association of School Business Officers, has reportedly told districts to anticipate a 10 percent reduction in grants from the state and federal governments, specifically for low-income and special education students, in anticipation of sequestration's cuts, which really won't be felt until the 2013-14 school year.

A spokesman for GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, Matthew Benson, said she has not taken a position on the bill. If I hear from the senate side of the state legislature or the office of Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, I'll update this post.

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