by ROBERT A. FRAHM
Courant Staff Writer
August 23 2005
As some of the state's leading educators and politicians hailed Connecticut's filing of a lawsuit against a controversial federal education law Monday, two national civil rights leaders called the action ill-advised.
The criticism from civil rights advocates, including former Connecticut lawyer John C. Brittain, came as Connecticut became the first state to go to court challenging the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush's education agenda.
The disagreement reflects a national debate over the most sweeping federal education law in 30 years. The law calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make sufficient progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.
The state filed suit in federal district court in Hartford against U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, contending the law will unfairly cost state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Our message today is: Give up the unfunded mandates or give us the money," said state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, flanked by about a dozen politicians and representatives of the state's education establishment.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the lawsuit "sends the wrong message to students, educators and parents."
"The funds have been provided for testing," said Susan Aspey, "but Connecticut apparently wants to keep those funds without using them as intended."
A key goal of No Child Left Behind is to close the achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority students lagging academically behind white, middle-class children.
Although educators across the nation have complained that the law does not provide enough money for schools to make the necessary improvements, some observers, such as Brittain, believe it has focused long overdue attention on low-income and minority children, whose academic performance generally has lagged behind that of other students.
"We believe poor children will suffer if the state of Connecticut wins" its lawsuit, said Brittain, who for years was a central figure in the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case that sought to improve racial balance in Hartford's public schools.
"No Child Left Behind keeps the accountability on the states, where it belongs," said Brittain, chief counsel and senior deputy director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C.
In a letter to Blumenthal, Brittain and noted civil rights lawyer William Taylor took no position on whether No Child Left Behind has been funded properly but alleged that Connecticut has failed to comply with the law's requirements to help local school districts meet academic standards.
That failure, the letter said, cannot be excused by the state's claims that the law is under-funded.
Taylor, chairman of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, questioned the strategy of basing a lawsuit on claims of unfunded mandates. "There is no basis for thinking those lawsuits have been successful," he said. "I'm afraid lawsuits of this kind ... may encourage other states to resist. That cannot help this major effort to help poor kids."
Blumenthal said the state doesn't object to the goals of No Child Left Behind, but "with the failed implementation."
The federal government has repeatedly rejected Connecticut's requests for flexibility in interpreting the law, including waiving a requirement to add three grades to Connecticut's annual testing program at a cost to the state of nearly $8 million over the next two years.
The state - which for years has tested children in fourth, sixth, eighth and 10th grades - will add tests in third, fifth and seventh grades in the spring to meet federal requirements even though the additional tests "have questionable merit," said state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg. She rejected the contention by Brittain and Taylor that the state had failed to help local school districts comply with the law.
Sternberg also has disagreed with the federal government over how to test special education students and children who speak little or no English.
Connecticut is one of many states that have clashed with the U.S. Department of Education over No Child Left Behind. Nevertheless, Blumenthal, despite months of effort, was unable to persuade other states to join the lawsuit.
"That's because almost every other state is in the process of asking the U.S. Department of Education for changes" in the interpretation of the law, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., a private nonprofit group that monitors education policy. "I think they're afraid that if they file suit they won't get the changes they're asking for."
As for Connecticut officials, "I think they're fed up," he said. The lawsuit "is a clear signal there is a great deal of discontent with the law."
That discontent was evident at Blumenthal's press conference, where educators and politicians blasted the federal law.
State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, compared the federal education department to a playground bully.
"While there are not other states that are currently joining us in this litigation, they are cheering us on because we are taking on the bully," he said.
One official noticeably absent from the press conference was Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The Republican governor has expressed reservations about challenging Bush's chief education program in court, but she did recently sign a bill authorizing Blumenthal to file the lawsuit.
Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the governor, said Rell was not invited to attend Monday's press conference.
The governor, however, issued a statement supporting Connecticut's existing school testing program.
"We need accountability. Our children deserve it," she said, "but we in Connecticut do a lot of testing already, far more than most other states. Our taxpayers are sagging under the crushing costs of local education. What we don't need is a new laundry list of things to do - with no new money to do them."
Courant Staff Writer Rachel Gottlieb contributed to this story.