National Teachers' Union, Three School Districts File 'No Child' Lawsuit
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; 2:26 PM
The nation's largest teachers' union today joined school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont in filing a federal lawsuit against the Department of Education for failing to provide adequate funding for the No Child Left Behind initiative.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal challenges to the Bush administration's signature education reform, which aims to make every student in the country proficient in reading and math by 2014. On Tuesday, the Utah legislature voted to give priority to its own state school accountability system over the federal law in the event of a conflict.
"The rebellion is growing," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank that has been tracking implementation of No Child Left Behind. "These actions are all ratcheting up the pressure on the Bush administration to either relax some of the requirements of No Child Left Behind or provide more money to fund it."
Newly appointed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has been attempting to defuse protests against the No Child Left Behind law by promising a "commonsense" attitude toward interpreting the law and broadening exemptions for disabled students. But she has been unable to bridge the gap with several states, including Utah, Connecticut and her own home state of Texas, which are all demanding much greater concessions from the federal government.
Lawyers for the National Education Association, the teachers' union that has been at the forefront of protests against No Child Left Behind, seized on a clause in the law that protects states from incurring "any costs not paid for under this Act." Opponents depict the law as an underfunded federal mandate that has imposed billions of dollars of extra spending on the states.
"The principle of the law is simple," said the teachers' union president, Reg Weaver. "If you regulate, you have to pay."
Bush administration officials dispute studies carried out by several states that purport to show that they are being forced to pick up the costs of additional standardized testing required by the 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation. They argue that federal funding for education has increased significantly during the past five years.
The Education Department had no immediate response. But Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, told the Associated Press that while committed to holding schools to high standards, the administration has also made clear that it will help states as long as they are making proven progress under the law.
After meeting with Spellings earlier this month, Virginia State Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary said she was "very encouraged" by her more flexible attitude toward No Child Left Behind, particularly on the issue of disabled students. Both DeMary and Nancy S. Grasmick, the Maryland state superintendent, predicted that the changes would lead to a sharp drop in the number of schools failing to meet the "adequate yearly progress" provisions of the law, putting them on a path to eventual reorganization.
But the changes failed to satisfy several other states, including Connecticut, which is preparing a lawsuit challenging a federal requirement that students be tested annually between grades three and eight, as well as grade 10. According to calculations by state auditors, the extra testing requirement will cost the state $8 million more than the federal government provides.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal delayed filing the lawsuit to wait for the outcome of negotiations between state education officials and the federal Department of Education. But little came from a meeting this week between Spellings and Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg, and Blumenthal said he expected to file the lawsuit "imminently."
Although several school districts have mounted legal challenges to parts of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the section of the legislation on unfunded federal mandates has yet to be tested in court. The case is likely to revolve around complicated accounting arguments and conflicting estimates of the costs of the standardized tests that form the centerpiece of the accountability system promoted by the federal Department of Education.
The case also illustrates the changing nature of the rebellion against No Child Left Behind, which is shifting away from outright opposition to complaints about lack of funding. The Republican-controlled Utah legislature dropped an earlier threat to opt out of the law completely in order not to lose tens of millions of federal subsidies for some of the state's lowest-performing schools.
Instead of opposing the law outright, states are attempting to opt out of certain requirements while continuing to receive federal funds. Texas, for example, has exempted 9 percent of its students from regular state tests on the grounds that they are learning-impaired. Spellings has agreed to exempt up to 3 percent of students.
The new Utah law authorizes state officials to ignore provisions of No Child Left Behind that have not been fully funded by the federal government. Legislators from both houses voted in a special session in favor of the law, despite warnings from Spellings that they ran the risk of losing $76 million in federal funding.
"I'd just as soon they take the stinking money and go back to Washington with it," said Republican house member Steve Mascaro.
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