NEA Picks Wrong Fight on Bush Education Funding
"The principle of the law is simple: If you regulate, you have to pay," Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said in defense of the lawsuit his organization filed last week against the U.S. Department of Education.
The legal action is an attempt by the nation's largest teachers union to force the Bush administration to provide more funding for its "No Child Left Behind" education reform initiative, which, among other things, sets national standards for student proficiency in math and reading by 2014.
While the NEA's motivation is good, its action is ill-conceived.
The union wants the federal government to give states more money to help improve public education. That's a good thing.
The lion's share of the cost of educating this nation's schoolchildren comes out of state treasuries. Given the need for a better educated and more highly trained workforce to keep this nation competitive in the global marketplace, the federal government has a big stake in the performance of public schools. And it ought to dig a lot deeper than it has so far to help pay the cost of achieving the education goals it is pushing the states to meet.
But in siding with school districts in Vermont, Texas and Michigan in charging that the law's requirements constitute an "unfunded mandate" - which the No Child Left Behind legislation prohibits the federal government from imposing on the states - the NEA picked the wrong fight.
The union would have done better to sue those states and others where there is a yawning gap between the performance of minority and white schoolchildren on standardized tests.
Take on the states
Instead of suing the federal government - a backdoor attempt to remedy the imbalances in the nation's school systems, of which the achievement gap is symptomatic - the NEA should have hauled the states into federal court. Public education is a responsibility that is etched into the constitutions or statutes of the states.
Rather than use the unfunded-mandate argument to get the federal government to increase its small share of the nation's public education budget, the NEA should have gone into court to press the states to do a better job of managing their schools. The failure of states to close the education achievement gap between white and minority students, the NEA should be arguing, is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
If the goal of the NEA's legal action is to end the funding imbalances that fuel these disparities, it should have made the constitutional argument against the states. The legal course it has taken seems more likely to cause the Bush administration some political embarrassment than to achieve the student performance goals of the No Child Left Behind law.
Pushing the unfunded-mandate argument is not only a legal misdirection; if successful, it could have some serious unintended consequences. It could open the way for state challenges to other unfunded federal mandates, such as implementation of the Voting Rights Act, portions of which are set to expire in 2007. That's a Pandora's box the NEA shouldn't open.
A better strategy for the teachers union is to throw its considerable resources behind the NAACP's move to get states to do a better job of educating all schoolchildren. In February, the nation's largest civil rights organization urged states to come up with a five-year plan for reducing "education-related racial disparities" in public schools. This effort to help states meet the achievement goals of the No Child Left Behind law could get a big boost if the NEA put its legal cross hairs on the states.
It's not too late for this to happen. Suing the Bush administration for violating the unfunded-mandate clause of the No Child Left Behind law might produce an empty legal victory. All the federal government has to do to comply with that provision is back away from mandating the reforms.
States, on the other hand, are duty-bound to provide schoolchildren with a quality education. And the federal Constitution's equal protection clause, it should be argued in court, requires them to do what is necessary to close the academic achievement gap.
DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA TODAY.
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