Special Education

NCLB Trumps IDEA, Appeals Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — February 14, 2008 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has turned away a lawsuit by two Illinois school districts and four families that said the No Child Left Behind Act was in conflict with requirements of the main federal special education law.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled unanimously on Feb. 11 that even if the NCLB law was at odds with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the special education law “must give way” because NCLB is the newer statute.

The 1,600-student Ottawa High School District and 2,000-student Ottawa Elementary School District 141, along with the parents of four students in special education in the districts’ schools, had sued U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in 2005.

The suit said that the IDEA’s requirement that each special education student have an individualized education program runs contrary to the No Child Left Behind law’s requirement that special education students count as a distinct subgroup whose test results help determine whether a school makes adequate yearly progress, the key NCLB measure for holding schools accountable.

A federal district judge in Chicago had dismissed the suit last year, ruling that the school districts and families did not have legal standing because they had suffered no concrete injuries under the NCLB law.

Standing to Sue

The 7th Circuit panel reversed the lower-court judge on that issue, holding that the school districts, at least, had standing to sue the secretary of education under NCLB because, the court said, the law requires them to “pay for more tests than they would administer if left to their own devices.”

That part of the ruling may be significant for other districts that seek to challenge the No Child Left Behind law. The appellate court took note of the Jan. 7 ruling by its neighboring court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, that revived a major lawsuit challenging the NCLB law as an unfunded mandate. (“Court Ruling in NCLB Suit Fuels Fight Over Costs”, Jan. 16, 2008.)

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But the 7th Circuit panel quickly moved on to conclude that, on the merits, the Illinois suit “is too weak to justify continued litigation.”

The court said that even if the No Child Left Behind law, passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by President Bush in 2002, had provisions that conflicted with the IDEA, the descendant of federal legislation enacted in the 1970s, the newer law must take precedence.

“Plaintiffs’ view that an earlier law can repeal a later one by implication has time traveling in the wrong direction,” the 7th Circuit court said. It added that nothing in the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA superseded the testing requirements of the NCLB, which itself is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

“The 2004 amendments were designed in part to conform the [IDEA] to the [NCLB law], not to displace it,” the court said. “Thus the asserted conflict is between legislation enacted in 2001 and a structure that was adopted in stages between 1970 and 1990, and the 2001 statute must prevail to the extent of any conflict.”

The 7th Circuit covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

John M. Izzo, a Flossmoor, Ill., lawyer for the plaintiffs, said many schools are running into conflicts between requirements of the NCLB law and the IDEA.

“If Congress was trying to reconcile the two, I don’t think they did so successfully,” said Mr. Izzo, who added that an appeal is under consideration.

Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said department officials were pleased by the “favorable decision.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week

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