Today’s ruling by a federal appeals court reviving a legal challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act is unquestionably a major victory for the National Education Association and a coalition of school districts.
The NEA’s suit on behalf of itself, some of its state affiliates, and nine school districts in Michigan, Texas, and Vermont had been languishing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit for more than two years after a federal district judge in Detroit had dismissed the suit in 2005.
But now a majority on a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit court says that the “unfunded mandates provision” of the No Child Left Behind law essentially means what it says: That the federal government cannot require a state or a school district “to spend funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act.”
“NCLB, by its terms, fails to provide clear notice of the states’ obligation to incur additional costs to comply with the act’s requirements,” says the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr.
The big question now is, what does this ruling mean in practical terms for states and school districts? The 6th Circuit court was vague on that, returning the case to the district court for further proceedings. The Bush administration would seem likely to appeal the ruling to the full 6th Circuit court or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. I haven’t seen any comment from the administration yet.
In a lengthy interview I just had with Robert H. Chanin, the general counsel of the NEA and the architect of the lawsuit, he indicated that he believes the union got exactly what it had asked for, and that in his view school districts will not have to spend money for obligations under NCLB that aren’t funded by the federal government.
UPDATE at 5 p.m. ET: In an e-mailed statement responding to the ruling, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says the federal government is exploring all its legal options.
“This decision could undermine efforts to improve the education of our nation’s children, in particular those students most in need,” Spellings said. “No Child Left Behind is not an unfunded mandate but rather a compact between the states and the federal government, which asks that in exchange for federal dollars, results be demonstrated.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.