'No Child' Lawsuit Expresses Frustration
Ohanian Comment: Read this and be even more appreciative of the principled stand of decision makers in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.
Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate received the news that several Vermont school districts were suing over the federal No Child Left Behind Act at a slightly awkward time.
He was in the middle of a ceremony with federal Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, honoring the national teacher of the year and other teachers of the year from around the country, including Vermont.
Cate said he immediately made it clear that the lawsuit, which seeks to exempt states and districts from any portion of NCLB not funded by the federal government, was not his idea.
"I was meeting with the secretary and the assistant secretary … and I informed them in front of that public audience that this did not represent the position of the state of Vermont or the commissioner," he said in a phone conversation Thursday. "Local school boards have the right to decide whom they wish to sue. I'm staying out of it."
Though he felt Spellings was understanding of his situation, Cate said the lawsuit, which came less than two weeks after Spellings announced additional flexibility for schools and districts follow the major directives of the law, may complicate things in the state.
"I intend to ensure continued compliance with the law so we continue to be eligible for flexibility," Cate said.
The Vermont school districts — all from within the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union — that signed on to the national lawsuit challenging the federal No Child Left Behind Act did so for a variety of reasons.
School districts for Leicester Town, Neshobe Elementary, Otter Valley Union High School, Pittsford Town, Sudbury Town, Whiting Town, the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association are all plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
It is based on a section of the No Child Left Behind Act which states, "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."
Pat Eugair, chairman of the board of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said that the suit was an excellent vehicle for the board's financial concerns about the law.
"It's frustration at this unpaid mandate being presented to us," Eugair said. "We've been discussing it since it first came out, and what it does with the check marks."
Eugair, a Pittsford resident, said he was also frustrated about reports on schools that don't make adequate yearly progress under NCLB requirements.
"We're trying not to let it do anything to our schools, but the check marks make us look bad, like we're not taking care of the kids within the poverty level," he said. "I felt we needed to say something, we needed to take a stand."
But Sid Glassner, of Brandon, a member of the Otter Valley Union High School Board, hopes that the suit will be just the first step in a larger overhaul of the federal law.
"The shot heard around the world was just one shot," he said. "Maybe this will be the opening salvo in a protracted discussion. We've thrown down the gauntlet."
Glassner credited William Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, who was in Washington for the announcement of the suit, with giving his board the opportunity to join the suit.
"The board agreed that this is not the kind of way we want education to go," he said. "We don't want the kids to be victimized by this punitive law."
Glassner added that the board has representatives with a wide variety of political viewpoints, "not a board that leans in only one direction politically," he said.
But even so, they agreed at the need to challenge the sweeping education reform law, which was signed in January 2002.
Glassner said he hopes that from discussing the funding provisions of the law, the discussion will shift to its requirements and educational merits.
"I can't talk to a person on the street about curriculums or the pedagogy of a certain approach. It's a very difficult message to get across," he said. "But if you say you're getting $50 million (for NCLB) but you have to spend an additional $150 million to implement it, you can explain that in one sentence."
He added, "If you touch people's pockets they listen. Maybe after this we can raise the (other) issues."
Angelo Dorta, president of the Vermont-NEA, said the districts that signed on to the suit are "representative of districts throughout Vermont whose resources are being drained away to meet a one-size-fits-all federal standard that is wrong for Vermont."
"The federal government is supposed to pay for the paperwork, bureaucracy, and testing necessary to meet their regulations," Dorta said in a written statement. "Instead Vermont received $26.7 million less in 2005 than it would have if No Child Left Behind was funded at the level Congress authorized. Under President (George W.) Bush's proposed budget for 2006, Vermont would receive $42.4 million less than the authorized funding level."
Federal officials contend that education spending has increased by more than 40 percent since the president took office. Federal figures put total federal education funding in Vermont at $355.9 million, with $65 million to help implement the No Child Left Behind Act.
Both Glassner and Eugair said they were not worried at the prospect of federal reprisals for their districts for their roles in challenging the law.
Asked about the prospect of losing federal grants or having current applications turned down, Glassner said, "Probably, possibly. But so what. … I wouldn't object if the state turned down" all of the NCLB money.
"We started discussing this probably last year at this time," he said. "This was not a hasty decision. People asked good questions and this was pretty thoroughly vetted before we went along."
Contact Brendan McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES