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Teachers' Union Sues Over No Child Left Behind

Opening a new front in the growing rebellion against President Bush's education law known as No Child Left Behind, the nation's largest teachers' union and eight school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont sued the Department of Education today, accusing it of violating a passage in the federal law that prohibits any requirement that states spend their own money to carry out its mandates.

Some legal scholars said the union had assembled a rigorous complaint, thoughthey said it was difficult to judge the suit's prospects because the case has few close precedents. But it was clearly another headache for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who is trying to quash a federal-state conflict that has taken on several new forms in recent days. Hours before the suit was filed, Utah's Republican-dominated Legislature approved the most far-reaching legislative challenge to President Bush's signature education law.

Both the Utah bill, which requires educators there to spend as little state money as possible in carrying out the law's requirements, and the teachers' union lawsuit filed today, rest heavily on the same section of the federal law, which forbids federal officials from requiring states to spend their own money on the law. The Connecticut attorney general announced the state's intentions to sue the Department of Education on the same grounds two weeks ago.

"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 very 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."

More than 30 states - including many Republican strongholds - have raised objections to the law. Some, like Connecticut's, argue that the federal government is not adequately financing its requirements, which include a broad expansion of standardized testing. Others object to federal intrusion into an area long considered the domain of the states.

Margaret Spellings took office pledging to quickly improve relations with the nation's educators, which had frayed under her predecessor. Both Republicans and Democrats applauded her appointments. But in recent weeks, her diplomacy appears to have failed on several fronts. Lawyers for the teachers union, the National Education Association, filed their complaint today 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 mostly African-American students.

"School budgets have been eaten up by the requirements of this law, so on behalf of parents and children we're filing suit," said the president of the National Education Association, Reg Weaver. He tangled last year with the former secretary of education, Rod Paige, after the secretary referred to the union - which has 2.7 million members - as a "terrorist organization."

The other districts that joined the teachers union suit include Laredo, Tex., a mostly Hispanic district in the Rio Grande Valley, with 23,000 students and 30 schools, and six one-school rural districts in Vermont, with a total attendance of some 1,500 students, most of them white.

In its complaint, the union argues that the federal law has already obligated the nation's 50 state departments of education, 15,000 school districts and 90,000 local schools to spend billions of dollars more to comply with its requirements than they have received in federal money. The Bush administration has vehemently contested this assertion, pointing to significant increases in federal education financing since he took office.

But law professors said the plaintiffs would need only to prove that the law is even modestly underfinanced in order to prevail, because of the clarity of Section 9527 of the federal law, which was written by Republican lawmakers during the Clinton administration.

"Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the federal government," that section says, "to mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act."

The Connecticut attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who announced earlier this month his intention to sue the Department of Education in Federal District Court in Hartford, said today that the teachers' union suit would "add weight to our independent legal action against unfunded mandates imposed unlawfully on Connecticut and other states.

"We welcome this highly significant ally to the legal battle that looms ahead," Mr. Blumenthal said.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times


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