April 21, 2005
By SAM DILLON / NYTimes
Opening a new front in the growing rebellion against President Bush's signature education law, the nation's largest teachers' union and eight school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont sued the Department of Education yesterday, accusing it of violating a passage in the law that says states cannot be forced to spend their own money to meet federal requirements.
Some legal scholars said that the union, the National Education Association, had assembled a compelling cause of action. Still, they added, since the case has few close precedents, it was difficult to judge the suit's prospects.
But it was clearly another headache for Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, who is trying to resolve a federal-state conflict over the law, known as No Child Left Behind, that has taken on new forms in recent days. A day before the suit was filed, Utah's Republican-dominated Legislature approved the most far-reaching legislative challenge to the law.
Both the Utah measure, which requires educators there to spend as little state money as possible in carrying out the federal law's requirements, and the union lawsuit rely heavily on the same section of the federal law, which prohibits federal officials from requiring states to allocate their own money to fulfill the law's mandates.
This month, Connecticut's attorney general also announced the intention to sue the department on the same grounds, saying that the testing the law requires costs far more than the money the state is given to pay for it.
"If the facts about educational spending are as the plaintiffs allege, then this lawsuit has good prospects of winning," said David B. Cruz, a constitutional law professor at the University of Southern California. "It is a strong case because the statutory language is clear. The law says nothing in the act shall be interpreted to impose requirements that aren't being funded."
Since Ms. Spellings took office in January, she has pledged to improve relations with the nation's educators, which had frayed partly because of the law's demands for sweeping changes in local education practices.
The law requires that every racial and demographic group in every school must score higher on standardized tests every year. Falling short can bring sanctions, including the closing of schools.
Ms. Spellings has promised more flexibility, but those assurances have failed to blunt resistance to the law, even in strongly Republican states like Texas, which is defying a federal ruling on the testing of disabled children.
"If I were sitting in the White House, I would be concerned about the backlash against the law," said Patricia Sullivan, who tracks education politics closely as director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington group. "It's growing, and it's breaking out in many states."
In Utah yesterday, Tim Bridgewater, an aide to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, said that the governor would sign the bill that was approved on Tuesday. During the debate, several lawmakers protested the growth of federal influence on Utah's schools, asserting that while Washington paid 8 cents of every education dollar in the state, the law had given it virtually total control.
In a statement yesterday, Secretary Spellings said that though most school decisions should be made locally, "the federal government plays an important role" by keeping educators' attention on minority students who lag behind.
"States across the nation who have embraced No Child Left Behind have shown progress," she said. "The same could be true in Utah, whose achievement gap between Hispanics and their peers is the third largest in the nation and has not improved significantly in over a decade."
"Returning to the pre-N.C.L.B. days of fuzzy accountability and hiding children in averages will do nothing" to help Utah students, she added. Ms. Spellings did not comment on the lawsuit filed and financed by the National Education Association, but her spokesman, Susan Aspey, called it "regrettable."
"President Bush and Congress have provided historic funding increases for education, and yet we continue to hear the same weak arguments from the N.E.A.," Ms. Aspey said. "Four separate studies assert that the law is appropriately funded and not a mandate."
The union suit was filed in Federal District Court in Detroit, which has jurisdiction over one of the plaintiff school districts, in Pontiac, Mich., an urban system with 21 schools and 11,000 students, most of them blacks.
Other districts in the suit were Laredo, Tex., a mostly Hispanic district with 23,000 students and 30 schools; and six rural Vermont districts with a total attendance of about 1,500 students, most of them white.
In the complaint, the union argues that the law has already obligated the nation's schools to face "multibillion-dollar national funding shortfalls." The Bush administration contests this assertion, citing significant raises in federal education aid since President Bush took office.
The complaint seeks a court order notifying states and districts that they are not required to spend their own money to comply with the federal requirements.
"The law says that you don't have to do anything it requires unless you receive the federal money to do it," said Robert H. Chanin, the union's lead counsel. "There's a promise in the law, and it is unambiguous."
Robert W. Adler, a University of Utah law professor, said he was skeptical about the suit's prospects, because "generally, the Supreme Court has not been receptive to the unfunded federal mandates argument."
But the wording of the law, Mr. Adler said, might provide the plaintiffs a firmer legal standing than similar cases have enjoyed in the past.
Sylvia Bruni, superintendent of the Laredo schools, which have an annual budget of $170 million, said that her district this year had been obligated to spend $8.2 million of its own funds to comply with the federal law. Mostly, she said, those funds were spent to lengthen the school day and year, and to offer Saturday classes for students who had fallen short on standardized tests.
"It's all focused on passing the tests," she said.