The backlash against the No Child Left Behind Act was raised to a new level last week when Connecticut’s attorney general announced that his state plans to sue the U.S. Department of Education over the testing mandates in the sweeping federal law.
In announcing his intentions, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he was inviting other states to join the legal challenge, which he said would argue that the law violates federal statute by forcing states to use their own money to carry out its testing requirements.
“I’m not making a judgment about educational policy, whether testing is a good thing or a bad thing,” he said in an interview last week. “The point is that the federal government is mandating it, and it’s doing so without funding it.”
The legal threat is one of the boldest in a growing number of challenges to the Bush administration’s hallmark education law. Last month, Utah lawmakers took up—and then delayed—a bill to have the state’s education requirements take precedence over those in the federal law. (“Utah Legislators Delay Action on NCLB Bill,” March 9, 2005.)
In addition, a handful of local districts have filed their own lawsuits challenging the No Child Left Behind Act, a 3-year-old revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The National Education Association has been encouraging states to take legal action against the law, but so far none has.
Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, said a lawsuit by Connecticut would mark a significant escalation in the national debate over the law’s mandates.
“This is the first time that you have a state filing suit against the federal [law], and that’s a serious matter,” he said. “It’s not just a disgruntled school district, or a few parents. It’s the state of Connecticut saying that the federal government overstepped its bounds.”
The move to file a lawsuit follows a March report by the Connecticut Department of Education that claims the state would have to spend $8 million of its own money by 2008 to carry out the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law mandates annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, and once during high school. Connecticut assesses student performance in grades 4, 6, 8, and 10.
Mr. Blumenthal said that requiring a state to shoulder such a financial burden goes against a provision in the No Child Left Behind law that says federal officials cannot “mandate a state … to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act.” A similar argument was made last spring by Wisconsin’s attorney general in a written analysis of the federal law. (“Wis. Review Invites ‘No Child’ Lawsuit,” May 26, 2004.)
“As we thought about the potential claims, and provisions in the statute, what became crystal clear was that Congress sought to prevent exactly this kind of practice,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
In February, the U.S. Department of Education denied a request by Connecticut officials for a waiver to allow the state to continue with its current testing regime. In a letter explaining her decision, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that testing in more grades was needed to better identify students’ needs.
Betty J. Sternberg, the Connecticut commissioner of education, said last week that the money for additional state assessments would be better spent on other improvement strategies, such as preschool programs. Also last week, she released a second analysis contending that, along with the added state costs, local districts would have to spend millions to meet the demands of the federal law.
“The real question is, will doing more statewide accountability testing really address the achievement-gap issue?” Ms. Sternberg said in an interview. “Or are there proven programs that we know we should provide to make the gap smaller?”
Although Secretary Spellings announced new flexibility in meeting the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act last week, she made clear that the requirement to test students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school would continue. (“States to Get New Options on NCLB Law.” this issue.)
Achievement Gap Cited
Officials with the federal Education Department said the state’s intention to begin legal action was “disappointing.”
Agency spokeswoman DJ Nordquist said in a statement that Connecticut’s estimates of the costs of the No Child Left Behind law were “flawed,” and that Connecticut’s students “are suffering from one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation.”
“Instead of addressing the issue at hand, the state has chosen to attack a law that is designed to assist the students most in need,” she said, adding that Connecticut has received more than $750 million in federal funding under the legislation since President Bush signed it into law in January 2002.
Ross Wiener, a principal partner at the Washington-based Education Trust, agreed that the additional testing called for in the NCLB law would help the state better pinpoint its weaknesses. He noted that while Connecticut students overall are among the top-performing in the country, the state’s minority students and those living in poverty score far below the state averages.
“Poor students and students of color are underperforming in Connecticut public schools,” said Mr. Wiener, whose research and advocacy group supports the No Child Left Behind Act. “And the leadership there needs to respond to those performance issues in more constructive ways.”
Asked when he planned to file the lawsuit, Attorney General Blumenthal said April 6 that the filing was “imminent.” The main consideration, he added, is how long to wait to allow other parties to join. “We have tried every other avenue of relief,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “We are left with no recourse except for the courts.”