States and school districts can be required to spend their own money to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act if they accept federal funds under the law, the Bush administration argues in its formal reply to a National Education Association lawsuit that challenges the law.
In court papers filed June 29, the administration asked a U.S. District Court judge in Detroit to dismiss the suit, which was filed in April. The motion attacks the suit’s central claim that the U.S. Department of Education’s implementation of the sweeping 3½-year-old law violates the statute’s ban on placing “unfunded mandates” on states and districts.
The law is based on the principle that states and school districts “that receive federal financial assistance must comply with the conditions that come with that assistance,” the motion filed by the U.S. Department of Justice says. “In this lawsuit, plaintiffs seek the federal financial assistance without the accountability. …”
The federal government also challenges whether the Washington-based national teachers’ union, 10 of its affiliates, and nine school districts that are also plaintiffs have the legal standing to sue on behalf of states and districts across the nation.
The lawsuit’s main argument hinges on a proviso in the No Child Left Behind law that forbids “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.” (“‘NEA Files ‘No Child Left Behind’ Lawsuit,” April 20, 2005.)
The plaintiffs contend that the Education Department has issued thousands of pages of regulations under the education law that states and districts must collectively spend billions of dollars to obey, often through measures that are costly, “absurd,” and detrimental to their educational programs. The suit does not ask the court to strike down the NCLB law, but to relieve states and districts of the obligation of spending their own money to comply with it.
In its formal reply, the Justice Department argues that Congress imposed as a condition of federal aid to states and districts that they meet the law’s obligations, which could entail spending their own money.
“Plaintiffs ignore the fundamental distinction between a condition of assistance imposed by Congress and an ‘unfunded mandate’ imposed by ‘federal officers or employees,’ ” the motion says.
The suit attempts to create “an inadequate-funding excuse” for failing to meet No Child Left Behind Act requirements, a step that would “thwart the law’s primary purpose, which is to hold states and school districts that accept federal funds accountable for achieving improved educational results,” the administration says.
An Issue of Standing?
States and districts wanting to avoid the burden of the education law’s requirements may instead decline federal funding or advocate more of it, but they should not be able to “force the federal government to keep paying them money when they do not fulfill the statutory conditions,” the motion says.
The administration challenges the legal standing of both groups of plaintiffs: first, the NEA and its state affiliates in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and Vermont, as well as the local affiliate in the city of Reading, Pa.; and second, a total of nine school districts in Pontiac, Mich.; Laredo, Texas; and the Vermont towns of Leicester, Brandon, Pittsford, Sudbury, and Whiting.
The unions lack standing to pursue the claim because the states or districts that they say they are assisting by the lawsuit do not need or depend on the unions’ help to exercise their rights, the Justice Department contends.
In addition, the motion says the union plaintiffs have not identified any concrete ways their members have been harmed by the alleged diversion of funds from school programs to meet the federal law’s requirements.
Alleged harms in the suit, such as when union members receive a “stigma” from their schools’ failure to meet the law’s academic goals, are “perfunctory” allegations that “are particularly inadequate in this case where the alleged stigma results from the truth: i.e., the failure of school district to make progress in increasing proficiency in consecutive years,” the Justice Department’s court papers say.
The administration also argues that the districts lack standing because the suit dwells more on the challenges allegedly faced by other districts and states in meeting the law’s requirements than on any local funds the plaintiff districts have had to spend.
Robert H. Chanin, the NEA’s general counsel, said that while he would not comment on the Bush administration’s arguments in detail, the plaintiffs were “certainly pleased that the Education Department has chosen to put before the court the ‘merits’ issue,” referring to the plaintiffs’ contention that the implementation of the law constitutes an unfunded mandate.