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Published in Print: June 22, 2005, as Conn. Attorney General Says NCLB Lawsuit Still a Go

Conn. Attorney General Says NCLB Lawsuit Still A Go

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Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal hasn’t yet found the kind of high-level backing he wants for his planned legal challenge to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but he insisted last week that he remains “absolutely” committed to filing the threatened suit.

Mr. Blumenthal captured national attention when he announced in early April that Connecticut would become the first state to sue the U.S. Department of Education over its implementation of the NCLB law.

The suit, which he said at the time was “imminent,” would argue that the department was illegally imposing unfunded mandates on the state, in violation of a provision of the law itself. ("Connecticut Pledges First State Legal Challenge to NCLB Law," April 13, 2005.)

Since then, the suit has not materialized, and no other state has announced that it will team up with Connecticut, as Mr. Blumenthal had hoped. And his own state’s board of education and legislature have not yet signed on.

“We have no self-imposed deadline for filing suit,” the elected Democrat said by e-mail last week. But he added: “As long as the federal government insists on imposing any unfunded mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act, we plan to take legal action.”

In the meantime, Connecticut state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg and members of her staff are negotiating with the federal department over the state’s requests for waivers of some of the law’s requirements, most notably in testing.

Mr. Blumenthal said that he was awaiting the outcome of a revised waiver request that the state submitted May 27, but that he doubted it would head off a lawsuit.

Ms. Sternberg said in an interview last week that as talks between her department and the federal agency have dragged on, her initial reluctance to support legal action has waned.

Among other requests, the state has proposed not doing full-blown state-level testing of students in grades 3, 5, and 7, even though the federal law requires such testing each year in grades 3-8, and one grade of high school. ("States Eyeing Expense of Hand-Scored Tests in Light of NCLB Rules," May 25, 2005.)

“I’ve been trying and trying and trying to point toward what I believe are rational requests, based on research, and I’ve been frustrated by the lack of flexibility,” Ms. Sternberg said. “Maybe it has to be vetted out in a different venue, and maybe that venue has to be the courts.”

Not all of Ms. Sternberg’s bosses feel the same. The state board of education considered a resolution to endorse Mr. Blumenthal’s suit, but tabled it June 1 because the board’s eight sitting members were evenly split. The board has one vacancy.

Allan Taylor, the board’s chairman, said last week that reasons for wanting to hold off included the hope that the state-federal talks would pan out and the fear that “the federal Department of Education would retaliate against the state.”

Still, Mr. Taylor said the board backs Ms. Sternberg’s stance against what she calls “dumbing down” Connecticut’s testing regimen. The testing program, administered in grades 4, 6, 8, and 10, features a costly writing component that federal officials say goes beyond NCLB requirements.

Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department, said last week that, as it prepares a response to the May 27 letter, agency officials “continue to converse directly with the state to address its alarming achievement gap, which is among the largest in the nation.”

Meanwhile, a bill to endorse Mr. Blumenthal’s suit cleared the state Senate June 2. But it died when the House failed to take it up before the regular session ended six days later. Some supporters say they hope to resurrect the bill in a special budget-related session slated to start this week. But Laurence C. Grotheer, the press secretary to Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, a Democrat and the sponsor of the Senate bill, said he would be very surprised if the measure was revived this year.

‘Very Serious Matter’

Still, the attorney general said last week that he would probably not file suit until after the special session. “It is important to provide an opportunity to other state officials to support and join this important court battle,” he said.

After consulting with Mr. Blumenthal’s office, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents asked local schools chiefs on June 13 to seek votes on endorsing the lawsuit from their boards of education. As of June 16, five of the state’s 168 local boards had done so, and more were expected to follow suit, said David H. Larson, the association’s executive director.

Mr. Blumenthal is also seeking allies beyond Connecticut, and last week said other states “are actively considering joining the suit.” He added that “published reports indicate that at least 15 states are investigating the matter.”

Among those hoping that more states will jump in is Rosemary Coyle, the president of the Connecticut affiliate of the National Education Association. The Connecticut Education Association is among nine NEA state affiliates that are part of a federal lawsuit the 2.7 million-member teachers’ union filed in April against U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings over the No Child Left Behind law. ("Union, States Wage Frontal Attack on NCLB," April 27, 2005.)

“The more that states look at the law and address the issues, the better chances we have to change the things that we have in the law that need to be changed,” Ms. Coyle said, adding that she didn’t mind Mr. Blumenthal’s delay in filing suit.

“You have to take whatever time is necessary,” she said. “This is a very serious matter.”

Vol. 24, Issue 41, Pages 21,26

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