Judge Dismisses NEA Lawsuit Challenging Costs of No Child Left Behind Act

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A federal judge has thrown out a major legal challenge to the federal No Child Left Behind Act brought by the National Education Association, several of its affiliates, and nine school districts, ruling that Congress may require states and school districts to spend their own money to comply with the school-improvement law.

Judge Bernard A. Friedman of U.S. District Court in Detroit agreed with lawyers for U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was the named defendant in the lawsuit, that the plaintiffs’ suit failed to state a valid federal claim.

The suit hinges on a provision of the No Child Left Behind law that says “nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize 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 lawsuit argues that the federal law’s testing and accountability requirements impose costs on states and school districts that greatly exceed the level of federal funding Congress has appropriated for it. The plaintiffs alleged, for example, that “Illinois will spend $15.4 million per year to develop and administer required tests, whereas the federal government currently gives Illinois $13 million per year for this purpose, a $2.4 million annual shortfall.”

The Illinois Education Association is one of the plaintiffs. Others include affiliates of the 2.7 million-member NEA in nine other states, as well as the school districts of Pontiac, Mich., and Laredo, Texas; and several school districts in south-central Vermont.

But Judge Friedman rejected the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the provision, accepting the federal government’s argument that the language restricts only “an officer or employee” of the federal government from issuing an unfunded mandate.

“This does not mean that Congress could not do so, which it obviously has done by passing the NCLB Act,” Judge Friedman said in his Nov. 23 opinion dismissing the suit.

He continued: “Defendant also argues that it would make no sense for Congress to pass this elaborate statute—which does require many things of states and school districts as a condition of receiving federal education funds—if the states could avoid the requirements simply by claiming that they have to spend some of their own funds in order to comply with those requirements.”

Appeal Planned

On a separate issue, Judge Friedman rejected the federal government’s argument that the teachers’ union and school district plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case. The judge said that at this early stage, all that was required was that the plaintiffs allege facts in support of their standing. “The court is persuaded that standing has been adequately alleged,” Judge Friedman wrote. But that was little more than a symbolic victory for the plaintiffs, since he went on to dismiss the suit on the grounds that it failed to state a valid claim.

Secretary Spellings said in a statement that “Chief Judge Friedman’s decision validates our partnership with states to close the achievement gap, hold schools accountable, and to ensure all students are reading and doing math at grade-level by 2014.”

NEA President Reg Weaver said in a statement that the Washington-based teachers’ union and the other plaintiffs will appeal the decision. He said the plaintiffs “find it particularly troubling that the court did not even address—much less provide any basis for rejecting—the arguments that we presented as to the meaning” of the law’s language on unfunded mandates.

Another lawsuit, brought by Connecticut in U.S. District Court in Hartford last August, makes a similar challenge to the No Child Left Behind law based on the same provision of the act, as well as on a claim that the alleged unfunded mandates are a violation of the spending clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

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