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Guest column

Will grades insure quality?

By DIXIE ALLEN Utah State Board of Education

Since the inception of "No Child Left Behind," public education has been under attack. In Utah, many of these attacks are coming from the Utah State Legislature in the form of cuts to education funding, proposals to dismantle the state's educational governance structure and generally casting dispersions about the performance of Utah's Public Education System. Amid the myriad attacks comes the new legislative mandate to assign a letter grade to all schools, based on a model developed in Florida.

The question Utahns should be asking now is: Can school grades improve Utah's education system and meet the expectations of the taxpayers and especially legislators? The assumption school grades will improve student outcomes in Utah becomes suspect when one looks closely at Florida's K-12 reforms.

Grading schools was just one component of Florida's comprehensive reform efforts. Hallmarks of their education reform included a large infusion of money into the reading assistance program for early grades, lowering class sizes, and holding back third grade students who are not reading on grade level. Florida's test data certainly reflect improvement based on these changes. For example, Florida's fourth grade reading scores took an immediate jump when poor performing students were no longer included. However, with drastically lower expenditures and higher class sizes, Utah has shown similar and in some cases higher outcomes.

Given the similar educational outcomes, despite Utah's financial and class size disadvantages, one has to question what role, if any, grading schools has played in Florida's success. So will we actually improve the quality of education for Utah students by implementing a school grading system? After taking a close look at Florida's comprehensive reforms, the answer seems to be, "No."

However, school grades are on our horizon and as we approach the implementation of SB59, I am appreciative of the work of the Utah State Office of Education and the cooperation of the bill's sponsor, Senator Wayne Neiderhauser. Every effort has been made to include student growth measures and grade level competencies in the grade calculation, while still meeting the statutory requirements of SB59. For high schools there will be added points for graduation rate and students being prepared for career or college. It is anticipated that less than 10 percent of Utah schools will score as a "failing school" under the grading criteria, and these schools will likely be alternative high schools or schools in very poor communities, with little access to supplemental programs and supports.

The School Grading System might be one tool in informing our decision making about persistently under-performing schools, but it is paramount that this system is used as a way of identifying and helping struggling schools, not punishing them or the students, families and communities they serve.

Poking holes in tax laws


When is it not enough to have too much? Apparently, when you're a giant oil corporation.

Big Oil's avaricious honchos are always searching for another dime they can slip into their corporate pockets, no matter whom it hurts. A crude example of their ceaseless money grab is presently unfolding in Texas.

Led by Valero Energy Corp., one of the nation's largest petro-dealers, at least 16 huge refiners are trying to poke a loophole into the state's tax laws. Since 2007, these refiners have been required by the EPA to help cut the deadly air pollution spewing from America's vehicles by installing "hydrotreater" equipment that removes toxic sulfur dioxide from the gasoline they sell.

They did - but they're petulantly demanding a retroactive refund on property taxes they've paid since then on the hydrotreaters, claiming that any industrial equipment that reduces on-site pollution is tax-exempt. Nice try, but the professional staff of the state environmental agency points out that this reduction in air pollution doesn't occur on-site, but in people's cars. Indeed, the air around the refineries is actually more toxic now, because the corporations are simply burning off the sulfur dioxide they remove from the gasoline.

However, Valero appealed to the agency's political appointees, all named by Texas' corporate-hugging governor, Rick Perry. Sure enough, the politicos are expected to hand out some $135 million in tax refunds to the oil giants. Where will that money come from? Nearly half would be ripped right out of the local school budgets that were already decimated by Perry's $4-billion cut this spring in state funding. It seems to me that the schools should require oil executives to take a remedial course on the American concept of the common good.

Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker.

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