The nation’s largest teachers’ union lost the first round in its high-profile legal challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act, as a federal judge in Michigan ruled that Congress may require states and school districts to spend their own money to comply with the school improvement law.
In a Nov. 23 decision that the National Education Association and the other plaintiffs plan to appeal, Chief Judge Bernard A. Friedman of the U.S. District Court in Detroit agreed with lawyers for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was the named defendant in the lawsuit, that the plaintiffs’ suit had failed to state a valid federal claim.
The suit hinges on a provision of the 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.”
According to the plaintiffs, the 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 those purposes. The suit maintained, 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.”
But the judge rejected the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the provision at issue. He accepted the government’s argument that the language restricts only “an officer or employee” of the federal government from imposing 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 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.”
In addition to the 2.7 million-member national union, the plaintiffs include the Illinois Education Association and state NEA affiliates in nine other states, some local affiliates, the school districts of Pontiac, Mich., and Laredo, Texas, and several districts in south-central Vermont.
The NEA-led suit, filed in April, is separate from a suit that the state of Connecticut filed against the law in August. (“Connecticut Files Court Challenge to NCLB,” Aug. 31, 2005.)
Connecticut Suit Pending
On a separate issue, Judge Friedman rejected the federal government’s argument that the teachers’ union and school district plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the case, Pontiac v. Spellings.
The judge said that at this early stage in the legal proceeding, 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 other grounds.
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 the union found troubling the judge’s reasoning that it is proper for the federal government to pass unfunded mandates. “We consider that interpretation wrong,” he said.
The lawsuit that Connecticut’s attorney general filed in federal district court in Hartford this past summer makes a similar challenge based on the same provision of the nearly 4-year-old federal law, 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.
Responding to the ruling in the NEA suit, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in a statement that it was “wrong and in no way legally binding on our lawsuit in Connecticut.”
He criticized the judge’s opinion as having reasoning that was “virtually incomprehensible and completely unsupported.”
He said Connecticut’s claim is “that federal officials illegally imposed unfunded mandates by failing to grant waivers or flexibility in their regulatory requirements, making our case factually different” from the NEA’s. The Education Department had until Dec. 2 to file its response to Connecticut’s suit.