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Published in Print: February 8, 2006, as Civil Rights Groups Back NCLB Law in Suit

Civil Rights Groups Back NCLB Law in Suit

Connecticut NAACP files to intervene on side of Bush administration.

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Civil rights groups are seeking to join the federal government in defending the No Child Left Behind Act from a legal challenge by Connecticut, potentially giving the Bush administration important, if unlikely, new allies in arguing for the law.

The Connecticut NAACP, on behalf of three minority students in high-poverty schools, filed papers in federal court in New Haven, Conn., on Jan. 30, asking the judge in the Connecticut v. Spellings case to allow the group to intervene on the side of the U.S. Department of Education.

Connecticut v. Spellings

Connecticut Makes Oral Arguments

Connecticut filed a lawsuit in August charging that the No Child Left Behind Act is an unfunded mandate. A judge told state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal last week to get more documentation for the state's case.

Civil Rights Groups Weigh In

Four civil rights groups, including the Connecticut NAACP and the national office of the NAACP, last week sought to join the U.S. Education Department in defending the No Child Left Behind Act. Dennis C. Hayes, the general counsel for the national NAACP, explained that allowing Connecticut to opt out of the federal law's test requirements would set a dangerous precedent for other states.

Also providing legal support for the effort are lawyers from three national groups: the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, both based in Washington; and the national office of the NAACP in Baltimore.

Scot X. Esdaile, the president of the Connecticut NAACP, said the filing should not be read as an endorsement of the federal government’s handling of the education law, but rather as an attempt to ensure that the voices of poor and minority students are heard in the case.

“If you want to get at the table, you have to choose a side,” he said. “On this particular issue—not on all the intricacies of the law—we choose to stand on the side of the federal government.”

Calling the No Child Left Behind Act an illegal “unfunded mandate,” Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed suit against the Education Department in August, after the agency refused to grant the state waivers from some of the law’s testing provisions. ("Connecticut Files Court Challenge to NCLB," Aug. 31, 2005.)

Connecticut education officials say that assessing students in grades 3-8, as the law requires, will cost $8 million more than federal officials are providing. The state has tested only in grades 4, 6, and 8, as well as grade 10, and it questions the education value of expanding its assessments.

Bad Precedent?

Dennis C. Hayes, the general counsel at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Baltimore headquarters said allowing Connecticut to opt out of such a critical part of the federal law would set a dangerous precedent by encouraging policymakers elsewhere to do the same.

“If we view No Child Left Behind in terms of civil rights, then we are concerned about a state begging to be excused from participating or complying with an act intended to help disadvantaged people,” he said.

Signed into law by President Bush in early 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act seeks to hold schools and districts accountable for student performance, particularly among those students traditionally seen as at risk of academic failure.

Civil rights leaders have been split in their views of the law. While agreeing with its goals, some argue that it relies too heavily on test scores and stigmatizes low-income students. Others see it as an effective way to redirect resources to needy students.

Lawyers for some of the groups seeking the intervention say they still have concerns about the law, but they worry about letting a state off the hook for improving student achievement.

Although Connecticut’s overall student performance is among the highest in the country, the achievement gaps between its minority and white students are some of the widest in the country, by some measures.

“The key question is about the accountability of state and local officials for the progress of students,” said William L. Taylor, who chairs the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and is a long-time desegregation lawyer.

Specifically, the Connecticut NAACP asked in its motion last week to become a defendant in the suit, along with the U.S. Education Department. Should the judge grant that, and the case moves forward, the civil rights lawyers from each of the groups could then argue against Connecticut’s suit in court.

John R. Munich, an Atlanta-based lawyer who has followed the case, said the result could be that a suit over who pays for what would concentrate more than it would otherwise on the educational needs of the law’s intended beneficiaries.

“It adds an extra dimension to the lawsuit, and I assume what the civil rights groups will try to do is focus on the impact of NCLB on children,” said Mr. Munich, a partner at Sutherland, Asbill, and Brennan LLC, which often represents states in education finance cases.

No Decision on Dismissal

Reacting to last week’s motion, Chad Colby, a U.S. Education Department spokesman, said, “We’re encouraged by their support.”

But Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal said in a statement that he regretted that he and the NAACP, “are on different legal sides when we share the basic goals of No Child Left Behind.”

Gary Orfield, the director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and a critic of the way the NCLB law has been carried out, called it “unwise” for civil rights leaders to have taken the action.

“I think it’s important that they be specific and limit their targets, and don’t allow themselves to be used as allies to enforce a law that really has serious, counterproductive effects on schools that serve minorities,” he said.

Last week’s action came as U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz, who is presiding over the case, heard oral arguments from both the state and the federal government on a motion by the latter to dismiss the case. The civil rights groups also filed papers in support of the call for dismissal.

Any expectation of a speedy decision on whether to dismiss the case was swept away on Jan. 31 when Judge Kravitz told Mr. Blumenthal to amend his complaint with new information about the minimum cost of putting in place the additional testing required by the NCLB law.

The Education Department argues that Connecticut’s estimates of what it will cost to meet the requirements include a testing regimen more expansive than what the law requires.

Mr. Blumenthal has until Feb. 28 to file the additional documents, after which the federal government will have 30 days to respond. By then, Connecticut plans to have administered the additional tests at the heart of the dispute.

Both sides also have until the end of this month to comment on the Connecticut NAACP motion to intervene.

Vol. 25, Issue 22, Pages 15-16

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