Rutland School District Joining in NCLB Fight
Citing a broken promise in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the nation's largest teachers union and school districts in Vermont, Texas and Michigan are seeking to free schools from any part of the law not funded by the federal government.
The National Education Association, the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and school districts in Laredo, Texas, and Pontiac, Mich., and 10 state NEA chapters filed a lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan.
At a press conference and conference call in Washington, NEA President Reg Weaver said the organization was standing up for children, parents and school districts. He said the lawsuit was the first national challenge to No Child Left Behind.
"The law imposes express rules and regulations in children's classes. That's a fact," Weaver said. "Another fact is that the law requires Washington to pay for (implementing) the regulations. The fact is that Washington has not honored that promise. … We say, 'if you're going to regulate, you have to pay.'"
He added, "We believe education is a basic civil right and every child deserves to have a great public school. … Reform without resources is a cruel hoax."
William Mathis, superintendent of the Brandon-based Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and one of Vermont's most outspoken critics of the law, echoed that sentiment.
"It is the cruelest illusion to give the children a promise that we never intended to keep," he said.
Mathis added that No Child Left Behind's tests really only measure the poverty levels in school districts and then "punishes the victims."
"NCLB does not measure a school's quality, its programs or the tiny miracles performed by teachers," he said. "We deal with children who are dropped off at school at 6:45 in the morning when there mother has to go to work. … What do we do? We open the door and give them some food. NCLB doesn't measure that."
He added, "The government may ask schools to be accountable but they must also provide the resources. … Unfortunately the federal government has not kept that promise, has broken this contract."
Mathis said he hoped the government would respond to the suit not with "pious public platitudes, but in substance so we can truly ensure that no child is left behind."
The lawsuit, which names Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as the only defendant, is based on a paragraph of the federal law that says, "Nothing in this act shall be construed to ... mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act."
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey called the lawsuit regrettable, saying the NEA should be helping children "instead of spending its time and members' money in courtrooms."
Weaver said the lawsuit seeks a legal determination that states do not have to spend their own money to comply with the requirements of NCLB. It also seeks to shield school districts from federal retaliation if they stop following parts of the law due to lack of funding.
Guadalupe Cortes, a teacher from Laredo, added that NCLB's testing requirements are taking time away from teaching, draining resources from other programs and discouraging students.
"Let's face it, if an educational program meant to ensure students graduate high school causes more students to drop out … that's an excellent indication that something is wrong with the system," she said.
Responding to the suit, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush has overseen "historic levels of funding" and a commitment to holding schools to high standards.
States are making strong achievement gains under the law, and Spellings has made it clear she will help state leaders as long as they are making proven progress under the law, Perino said.
Bush defended the law Wednesday at a White House ceremony honoring the teacher of the year.
"I love the spirit of the No Child Left Behind Act," the president said. "I suspect the teachers love the spirit of challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations."
According to federal figures, spending on No Child Left Behind programs has increased 40 percent since Bush took office, from $17.4 billion to $24.4 billion.
But the lawsuit, which cites a series of cost studies, outlines billions of dollars in expenses needed to meet the law's mandates. These include the costs of adding yearly testing, getting all children up to their grade level in reading and math, and ensuring that teachers are highly qualified.
It contends that districts have had to and will have to spend their own money to comply with the law, "diverting those funds from other educational programs and priorities to the detriment of the Vermont school districts and the students in their charge."
Moreover, the lawsuit says, because the law is underfunded, some school districts — including Leicester, Brandon and the Otter Valley Union High School district — "have been unable to comply fully with the NCLB mandates and they and their students have been harmed by their inability to do so … thereby harming the school districts' reputations and their legal status."
More than a dozen states are considering anti-NCLB legislation this year. On Tuesday, the Utah Legislature passed a measure giving state education standards priority over federal ones imposed by No Child Left Behind, and Connecticut's attorney general is working on a legal challenge similar to the one filed Wednesday by the NEA.
The school districts involved in the lawsuit represent a variety of different educational situations, from rural Vermont students to limited-English learners in Laredo to poor students in Pontiac. In the lawsuit, Spellings is accused of violating both the education law and the spending clause of the U.S. Constitution.
When the union first promised the lawsuit two years ago, then-Education Secretary Rod Paige accused the NEA of putting together a "coalition of the whining." He later referred to the NEA as a "terrorist organization" for the way it opposed the law, a comment for which he later apologized.
Even if the lawsuit succeeds in getting NCLB's requirements fully funded, the NEA still plans to oppose what Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the NEA, called the organization's "substantial policy differences" with the law.
"We're still continuing to work on these things in Congress and through the regulatory process," he said. "This lawsuit focuses on the funding half."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Brendan McKenna at email@example.com.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES