With the No Child Left Behind law in its fourth year and with
more benchmarks coming, there are growing concerns over the capacity
of states to comply with the law's programmatic mandates and meet
its timetable for moving students to academic proficiency.
From the conservative statehouse in Utah to liberal corridor
of the Northeast, lawsuits and legislation are under way seeking
to limit the federal government's control over public education.
2005, the objections and grumbling about the law gained new force
as states and teachers unions took action to oppose the law. A
handful of states have complained that the law forces them to
spend millions of dollars they do not have.
Utah lawmakers passed the sharpest rebuke to date, ordering schools
to ignore provisions of the law which conflict with the states'
laws. In May 2005, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signed a measure into
law that allows that state's districts to ignore provisions of
the NCLB act that conflict with Utah's program. The U.S. Department
of Education has threatened to withhold federal education funding
as a result.
Teachers unions such as the National Education Association and
the American Federation of Teachers have opposed NCLB reforms
almost from inception, and have utilized their money and vast
manpower in efforts to both weaken the law's provisions and to
turn around public perception of the law and its necessity.
The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers
union, filed the lawsuit along with districts in Michigan, Vermont
and President Bush's home state of Texas, plus 10 NEA chapters
in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio Pennsylvania
Filed on April 20, 2005, the NEA lawsuit argued that the NCLB
act is costing districts more than they are receiving in federal
funding. The suit asked the government to exempt school districts
from any of the law's requirements that aren't paid. It is the
first to try to block NCLB on the ground that it imposes requirements
on state and school districts that were not paid for by the federal
On Nov. 23, 2005, Judge Bernard Friedman of the U.S. District
Court for the Eastern Court of Michigan granted the government's
motion to dismiss the NEA lawsuit, called Pontiac, et al, v. Spellings.
Friedman did reject the government's argument that the plaintiffs
lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit at all.
In his ruling, Friedman responded, "If lawmakers had meant
to pay for mandates in the law, they would have phrased the legislation
to say so clearly and unambiguously."
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who has spent years negotiating
with states over compliance with aspects of the law, said in a
statement that the Michigan ruling is "a victory for children
and parents across the country."
On March 22, 2006, NEA and the other plaintiffs appealed the
case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, saying Friedman's
ruling "was both misplaced and unfounded" and citing
legislative history to support their interpretation of Sec. 9527(a),
which prohibits unfunded mandates.
Connecticut became the first state to file a lawsuit against
the U.S. Department of Education in August 2005. The state claimed
the NCLB law was illegal because the Bush administration had not
provided enough money to pay for the testing and programs required
under the act.
Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg told the Public Education
Network that students in Connecticut have been tested in grades
4, 6, 8 and 10 for two decades, and state officials said the accountability
program worked. Connecticut students consistently rank near the
top of the nation in academic performance. But the NCLB law requires
additional tests in grades 3, 5 and 7.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said during a
press conference that the law specifically prohibits unfunded
mandates -- and Washington is illegally forcing Connecticut to
spend an additional $8 million on unnecessary tests. The state
applied for a waiver but was rebuffed.
The NCLB act requires the state to pay for standardized testing
every school year, instead of every two years, even though the
State Department of Education said it will provide little new
information about students' academic progress.
But Sternberg said the lawsuit was not just about the funding.
She said if the state is forced to do more testing, she wanted
control over the design of tests that help classroom teachers.
"They're actually telling us to, and I hate to use the word,
but dumb down our test," she said.
But federal officials said NCLB's testing requirements are aimed
at states like Connecticut, where, despite overall educational
success, there's a huge achievement gap between rich and poor,
and white and minority students.
"It's unfortunate that the state has chosen to address their
achievement gap with a lawsuit that takes attention from their
neediest students," said U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman
Susan Aspey. "No Child Left Behind at its heart is designed
to close the achievement gap and raise student achievement for
all students regardless of race or income or background."
Many states have sought exemptions from requirements of the law,
and Spellings has granted several. For example, Chicago public
schools were allowed to use federally financed tutoring programs,
rather than private firms, as the law requires for students who
Twenty states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado,
Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Oregon,
South Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee and Utah, requested a change
in NCLB that would significantly alter the way the Education Department
measures student progress.
Lawmakers from both parties have said they plan to introduce
legislation to amend the law before its 2007 reauthorization.