Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Connecticut to Sue U.S. Over Cost of Testing Law

April 6, 2005

Connecticut to Sue U.S. Over Cost of Testing Law

The State of Connecticut will sue the federal government over President Bush's signature education law, arguing that it forces Connecticut to spend millions on new tests without providing sufficient additional aid, the state's attorney general announced yesterday.

Although a handful of local school districts, in Illinois, Texas and other states, have filed legal challenges to the law, known as No Child Left Behind, Connecticut would be the first state to do so.

Its suit would open a new chapter in a struggle between states and the federal government that has seen legislatures lodge various protests over the law, and at least one state education commissioner, in Texas, issue an order this year that appeared to directly contradict a federal ruling.

Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said he was announcing his plans now because he was going to be contacting attorneys general in other states, in the hope that they would join the suit. He said he expected to file within weeks.

"The federal government's approach with this law is illegal and unconstitutional," Mr. Blumenthal said in an interview. He declined to predict whether any of his colleagues in other states would join his action, but he said he was finding "fertile ground."

"There is burgeoning unhappiness among both Republicans and Democrats," Mr. Blumenthal said. "The dissatisfaction is felt across the country and is across the board, politically. So I can pretty much call any of my colleagues and get an earful."

Legal scholars said that previous lawsuits brought against the federal government over so-called unfunded mandates had had mixed success. But Connecticut's suit could gain traction because the No Child Left Behind law includes a passage, sponsored by Republicans during the Clinton administration, that forbids federal officials to require states to spend their own money to carry out the federal policies outlined in the law.

The federal law requires Connecticut to spend some $112.2 million to expand its testing program and to help local districts carry out other federal requirements over the next three years, while Washington has appropriated only $70.6 million, leaving the state with an unfunded burden of $41.6 million, Connecticut's commissioner of education, Betty J. Sternberg, said in a report issued last month. In a statement issued yesterday, D J Nordquist, a federal Department of Education spokeswoman, said Connecticut had based its planned suit on flawed accounting and she called Mr. Blumenthal's announcement "a sad day for students in Connecticut."

"The basis for the state's lawsuit appears to rest on a flawed cost study of the No Child Left Behind act that creates inflated projections built upon questionable estimates and misallocation of costs," Ms. Nordquist said.

She added, "It is very disappointing that officials in Connecticut are spending their time hiring lawyers while Connecticut's students are suffering from one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation."

Connecticut is not the only state to have charged that the federal government is not paying for all the requirements it is imposing on school systems under the three-year-old No Child Left Behind law. And many states also complain that the federal law interferes with states' rights and their own efforts to improve schools.

In Utah, the House of Representatives, for example, has passed a measure that would require Utah officials to give higher priority to the state's educational goals than to the federal law, and the Utah Senate is to vote on the measure at a special session this month.

Connecticut currently tests public school children in grades four, six, eight and 10, while the federal law requires all states to administer standardized tests in every school year from three through eight. Expanding Connecticut's testing program to cover grades three, five and seven will force the state's Department of Education to spend $8 million of its own money over the next three years, Dr. Sternberg said in a report to Connecticut's General Assembly last month.

In preparing the lawsuit, Mr. Blumenthal said he had relied heavily on Dr. Sternberg's educational views.

"I'm the lawyer, she's the educator, and we have a good partnership," Mr. Blumenthal said. "Our legal action will vindicate the policies that she has advocated so eloquently in recent months."

In a letter to Margaret Spellings in January after her designation as education secretary but before her confirmation, Dr. Sternberg noted Connecticut's "effective 20-year history of testing in alternate years," and requested that Connecticut be relieved of the requirement to expand the testing. Annual testing, Dr. Sternberg wrote, "will cost millions of dollars and tell us nothing that we do not already know about our students' achievement."

In a reply faxed to Dr. Sternberg on Feb. 28, Secretary Spellings refused that request, saying that "annual testing is important." The secretary followed up with a March 20 opinion article in The Hartford Courant that chided Dr. Sternberg for requesting the waiver, saying many Connecticut students "would welcome the chance to be tested only every other year, but the adults in charge of their education surely know better."

That article angered many Connecticut educators and parents, to judge from letters to the editor and e-mail messages received at the state's Department of Education, and one of those offended was Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, who wrote Secretary Spellings on Thursday.

"As Connecticut's governor, and as a parent who deeply values high-quality education for every child, I was offended by your commentary," Governor Rell's letter said. "You disparaged the knowledge and judgment of Connecticut educators who - with the full, bipartisan support of governors and legislatures over more than 20 years' time - have conducted a highly effective student testing program since 1984."

Governor Rell also said Secretary Spellings's Feb. 28 letter "included incorrect information, data stated in misleading ways and a suggestion that Connecticut might consider not adhering to federal law" and was "hardly becoming to the federal Secretary of Education."

Yesterday, the governor's spokesman, Dennis Schain, said: "On the one hand the Department of Education fails to provide states with the funds needed to implement the law and on the other, it resists requests for flexibility.

"Governor Rell understands there are reasons for bringing the lawsuit but believes the best solution for our children is for the federal government to grant states flexibility."

Stacy Stowe contributed reporting for this article.


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