Spellings Asks 6th Circuit to Reconsider NCLB Ruling

Decision’s ramifications are ‘immediate and irreparable,’ filing says.
By Mark Walsh — February 07, 2008 3 min read
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In a court filing Feb. 5, Bush administration lawyers asked the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, to reconsider last month’s decision by a panel of the court that suggested states and school districts do not have to use their own money to comply with the education law’s mandates when federal funding falls short.

“The ramifications of the decision are immediate and irreparable, and they extend for the indefinite future,” the administration’s court filing says.

The 6th Circuit court panel ruled 2-1 on Jan. 7 that the states were not on clear notice of their potential financial obligations when they agreed to accept federal funding under the No Child Left Behind law. The majority ruled that state officials could “reasonably read” the law’s unfunded-mandate provision to conclude that they “need not comply with NCLB requirements for which federal funding falls short.”

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association is behind the lawsuit, which was filed in 2005 in U.S. District Court in Detroit on behalf of some of the union’s state affiliates and nine school districts in Michigan, Texas, and Vermont.

Union’s View

After the 6th Circuit court panel’s ruling, Robert H. Chanin, the NEA’s general counsel, told Education Week that he believed states and school districts would be justified in refusing to use their own funds to implement NCLB requirements not covered by federal aid. (“Court Ruling in NCLB Suit Fuels Fight Over Costs,” Jan. 16, 2008.)

Secretary Spellings alluded to Mr. Chanin’s remarks in a Jan. 18 letter to chief state school officers, stressing that “no state or school district should regard the ruling as license to disregard NCLB’s requirements.” The court filing on behalf of Ms. Spellings was more explicit, arguing that based on Mr. Chanin’s remarks in Education Week, the NEA “has publicly encouraged school districts to cease to comply with the NCLB.”

In an interview, Mr. Chanin said the Bush administration was mischaracterizing his interpretation of the 6th Circuit’s ruling.

He said the union’s position in light of the ruling is that states and districts should notify the federal Department of Education when they face a shortfall of federal funds to meet their obligations under the law.

“They should say we have X amount of money, but Y amount to do” to comply with the law, said Mr. Chanin, who added that the states and districts should then ask the department, “What do you want us to do?”

The administration’s court filing contends that both the NEA and the 6th Circuit panel majority misunderstand the funding relationship between the federal government and state school systems under the 6-year-old NCLB law. The law requires, among other mandates, annual testing of 3rd through 8th graders in reading and mathematics and adequate yearly progress by schools toward meeting achievement goals.

The document notes that under the law, school districts have the power to transfer up to 50 percent of certain forms of federal education aid among an assortment of programs as long as they demonstrate academic results.

“Under the panel decision, school districts retain this unprecedented new flexibility yet jettison the obligation to demonstrate results,” the government’s filing says.

Court’s Discretion

The administration also discusses the situation of one of the plaintiffs in the suit, the 720-student Otter Valley Union High School District in Vermont. That district receives no funding under Title I—the law’s biggest program—and thus cannot comply with NCLB testing mandates without spending a considerable amount of its own money, the NEA lawsuit contends.

But the administration’s filing says the law “requires participating states to create statewide academic standards applicable to all schools and children in the state” and to “measure the achievement of all children.”

“Although Congress exempted school districts and schools that receive no Title I funds from certain remedial requirements,” the document adds, lawmakers “did not tell non-funded school districts that they need not perform any testing in the first instance.” Mr. Chanin noted that it was up to the 6th Circuit court to decide whether it wanted his side to file a formal response to the government’s request. Whether the court grants a rehearing of the case is up to its discretion as well.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Spellings Asks 6th Circuit to Reconsider NCLB Ruling


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