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NEA Files 'No Child Left Behind' Lawsuit

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After more than 1½ years of fanfare and false starts, the nation’s largest teachers’ union filed a lawsuit April 20 challenging the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The suit against the U.S. Department of Education was brought by the National Education Association on behalf of school districts in Pontiac, Mich.; Laredo, Texas; and south-central Vermont, as well as itself and 10 affiliates of the 2.7 million-member national union.

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But the union’s original plan to sue only after finding a state to go along was apparently trumped when Connecticut officials recently announced that they had decided to challenge the law alone despite an offer of help from the NEA.

The NEA suit charges that the sweeping federal education law is illegal because it forces states to use their own money to carry out its mandates—contrary to a provision in the federal education law, the union says.

And the suit asks the U.S. District Court in Detroit to prohibit the Department of Education from threatening to withhold federal money if a state has to spend more to comply than Washington sends. Such an action would in effect pull most of the law’s teeth because state officials could decide themselves where to put their efforts without losing federal funding.

The idea behind the challenge is simple, said NEA President Reg Weaver: “If you regulate, you must pay.”

Federal education officials have repeatedly countered arguments about inadequate funding by pointing to what they say are “historic” levels of money budgeted to ensure that the law’s goals are met. And in theory, states could forgo federal education aid if they wished to be free of the mandates.

Funding Gap

Union officials initially said they were seeking a state to join the suit because it would offer stronger legal standing than that of school districts and teachers’ unions. For more than a year, no state stepped forward.

Then, two weeks ago, Connecticut’s attorney general announced that the state planned to sue the Education Department over the testing mandates in the law, a 3-year-old revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Connecticut has not yet filed such a suit.

Meanwhile, Utah lawmakers passed a bill April 19 to have the state’s education priorities supersede the federal law. ("Utah Lawmakers Pass Bill Flouting NCLB," April 20, 2005.)

NEA officials said the plaintiff districts were chosen because they represent a cross section of those the law is harming. The 10,900-student Pontiac district mainly enrolls African-American students, while Laredo’s 23,500 students are mostly of Hispanic ancestry. The six small districts that make up Vermont’s umbrella Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union are for the most part rural.

Experts have predicted that more signs of resistance to the federal law would surface as states and districts moved from the costs of planning, data collecting, and testing to those of trying to meet the student-performance levels required. The measure calls for increased testing, particularly in grades 3-8, with the aim of getting all students to a “proficient” level by 2014; higher teacher qualifications; and increasingly severe consequences for schools that fail to meet the academic standards.

According to the suit, the gap between the spending authorized by the law and the actual amount that goes to the states has been growing since it was passed. Further, a number of calculations by the states show that even the authorized amount would not be enough to provide the tutoring and greater school time that low-achieving students would minimally need to reach the bar.

Next year, the suit says, President Bush’s proposal to spend $13.34 billion on Title I, the main NCLB program serving disadvantaged students, would fall short of the authorized amount by more than $9 billion.

In addition, the suit contends, to meet federal mandates, states and districts have had to siphon money away from programs that education officials say would help students more in the long term.

The Education Department was preparing a response to the lawsuit.

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