Law & Courts

Full Appeals Court to Reconsider Ruling That Revived NCLB Suit

By Mark Walsh — May 01, 2008 3 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions.

A federal appeals court has agreed to re-examine a ruling by a panel of the court that revived a lawsuit challenging the No Child Left Behind Act for imposing unfunded mandates on states and school districts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, said on May 1 that the entire 14-member court would rehear the case of Pontiac School District v. Spellings.

Bush administration lawyers sought the rehearing on behalf of U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings after a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit ruled on Jan. 7 that the states were not on clear notice of their financial obligations when they agreed to accept federal money under the NCLB law. (“Court Ruling in NCLB Suit Fuels Fight Over Costs,” Jan. 16, 2008 and “Spellings Asks 6th Circuit to Reconsider NCLB Ruling,” Feb. 13, 2008.)

The action by the full 6th Circuit has the effect of setting aside the panel’s opinion. No date was set for the rehearing, but one source indicated that oral arguments could take place in September.

The rehearing request had been opposed by the National Education Association, which filed the legal challenge on behalf of nine school districts in Michigan, Texas, and Vermont.

The 6th Circuit court’s action came the same week that a federal district judge dismissed the state of Connecticut’s lawsuit against Secretary Spellings over NCLB funding issues.

U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz of New Haven, Conn., on April 28 rejected the last of the state’s claims in a suit filed in 2005. The judge had dismissed some claims in the suit in 2006.

Judge Kravitz rebuffed Connecticut’s efforts to overturn an administrative decision by Secretary Spellings that turned down the state’s request for greater flexibility in testing students in special education and English-language learners under the NCLB law. The judge said the secretary’s actions were not “arbitrary or capricious” under federal procedural law.

Connecticut filed its lawsuit in August 2005 amid state officials’ growing frustration with the law, which requires annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school and requires schools and districts to reach achievement benchmarks.

No other state has followed Connecticut’s path, although the NEA suit raises similar questions on NCLB funding issues.

On a key issue in the Connecticut case, Judge Kravitz declined to rule on the state’s arguments that the secretary was enforcing the law in a way that violates the NCLB provision barring the federal government from imposing “unfunded mandates” on the states.

The state failed to make clear during the review of its plan that federal funding would be insufficient to provide testing accommodations for English-language learners or to develop alternative assessments for students with disabilities, Judge Kravitz said.

Conn. Appeal Planned

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who filed the state’s suit, expressed disappointment with the ruling, but he was eager to press the issues on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City.

“My office will immediately take our fight to the 2nd Circuit to protect our children and taxpayers from flawed federal policies that impose mindless, detrimental policies, as well as costs, on states,” Mr. Blumenthal, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for Ms. Spellings, said the decision was a “resounding victory for children and their families.”

William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington group that supported Ms. Spellings in the case, said the ruling showed that the courts are not the best arena to remedy conflicts over the NCLB law.

“It’s been almost three years, and Connecticut has lost at every single turn,” Mr. Taylor said. “There is a debate over whether we keep the basic [accountability] principles in this act. But I don’t see these matters getting decided in the courts.”

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