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U.S. Asks Court to Throw Out NEA Lawsuit Over NCLB

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States and school districts may be required to spend their own money to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act if they choose to accept federal funds under the law, the Bush administration argues in its formal reply to a lawsuit by the National Education Association.

In court papers filed June 29, the administration asked a U.S. District Court judge in Detroit to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in April. The motion attacks the lawsuit’s central claim that the U.S. Department of Education’s implementation of the sweeping education law violates that statute’s ban on issuing "unfunded mandates" to states and school districts.

The government also challenged whether the Washington-based national teachers’ union, 10 of its affiliates, and six school districts that are also plaintiffs have the legal standing to sue on behalf of states and school districts across the nation.

The lawsuit’s main argument hinges on a proviso in the 3-year-old federal law that prohibits "an officer or employee of the federal government to ... mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act."

The plaintiffs charge in Pontiac v. Spellings that the Education Department has issued thousands of pages of regulations under the NCLB law that states and districts must collectively spend billions of dollars to obey, often through measures that are costly, "absurd," and detrimental to their educational programs. The suit does not ask the court to strike down the education law but to relieve schools of the obligation of spending their own money to comply with it.

Evading Accountability?

In its formal reply, the U.S. Department of Justice argues that Congress conditioned federal aid to states and districts upon their meeting the law’s obligations, which could entail spending their own money.

"Plaintiffs ignore the fundamental distinction between a condition of assistance imposed by Congress and an 'unfunded mandate' imposed by 'federal officers or employees,'" the motion states.

The lawsuit attempts to create "an inadequate funding excuse" for failing to meet NCLB requirements, a step that would "thwart the law’s primary purpose, which is to hold states and school districts that accept federal funds accountable for achieving improved educational results," the government contends.

States and districts wanting to avoid the burden of NCLB requirements may instead decline federal funding or advocate for more of it, but they should not be able to "force the federal government to keep paying them money when they do not fulfill the statutory conditions," the government said.

The motion asks the court to dismiss the lawsuit "with prejudice," meaning that the plaintiffs would not be allowed to make the same claim again.

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