Constitution Conflict Seen: Mom Believes Parents Are Left Behind In Testing Decisions
Ohanian Comment: Three cheers for Karen Pierce! Doesn't everyone connected with schools have a duty to protect children from the abusive effects of test mania? And certainly if the school won't do it, then a parent must. Her legal argument is fascinating.
By John Voket
If Karen Pierce's sons went to class complaining that they were psychologically terrorized at home, she believes school officials would have police or child welfare officials banging on her door within the hour. But as a parent, the Newtown mother was shocked to learn she had no way of protecting her children if they were suffering excessive psychological stress over mandatory standardized tests.
She believes her concern may be among the first highlighting a fundamental constitutional conflict between state Mastery Test requirements, President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. and the basic pillars of our constitution. This crash course in the finer points of educational mandates came two weeks ago when Ms Pierce, who is a licensed child advocate and former educator herself, learned her 8-year-old son was "suffering terribly" during preparation activities for the Connecticut Mastery Tests.
"He told me at one point he went out into the hall and broke down crying," Ms Pierce told The Bee. "He has had it ingrained in him that these tests are extremely important, and that he has to do well on them not only for himself, but because the scores represent his entire class."
So the first thing Ms Pierce felt she should do was request her son be excluded from the mandatory testing, "for at least another year," so she could concentrate on better preparing him for the process and the related stress of taking the tests.
During a conversation and in follow-up emails to The Bee and to officials from the local school district, to the state Department of Education, to the Attorney General's office, to Connecticut's US Congressional representatives and senators, to the American Civil Liberties Union, Ms Pierce has been told repeatedly that this was the first time anyone has brought the apparent constitutional conflict to the fore.
"As an educator and as a parent, I've seen the effects of test-related anxiety on children on many occasions," she said. "When the same stress began appearing in my 8-year-old, I requested that he be excused from taking the standardized tests as mandated by NCLB. After talking to a representative of the attorney general's office, an attorney from the Commissioner of Education's office, the assistant superintendent of my school district, as well as the principal of my son's school, I was informed that I had three choices: home tutor, enroll him in a private school, or have him identified as learning disabled, period."
None of the sources she contacted to date have been able to provide her with other options that would allow her child to stay in the public school system, while affording her the right to protect and shield her son from the test-related anxiety.
"As a parent, I am responsible for my child's physical well-being. Schools are, by law, responsible for reporting to the government any sign of physical child endangerment...which could lead to intervention from the government on behalf of my child," she pointed out. "So it simply doesn't make sense that the NCLB legislation legally restricts me from protecting my child's emotional well-being."
Beyond her hands-on experiences as a teacher and advocate, "having seen students break down in classrooms" during standardized testing, her personal concerns have motivated Ms Pierce to further examine the impact of test anxiety on children (lowered self-image, fear or dislike of school) and the validity of standardized tests in accurate student assessment.
"It is of grave concern that, as his parent, I cannot intervene and request that his exposure to standardized test be postponed a year or two until he is developmentally ready for such stress," she wrote in a letter to the state Civil Liberties Union. "I thought that the Constitution outlined my freedoms as a citizen and a parent specifically the First and 14th Amendments."
An abstract provided by the National Center for Children's Justice notes that, "The rights of parents to the care, custody and nurture of their children is of such character that it cannot be denied without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions, and such right is a fundamental right protected by this amendment [First] and Amendments 5, 9, and 14."
An excerpt from a November 2004 article published by the Home School Legal Defense Association provided by Ms Pierce further asserted that "...the US Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the liberty clause in the 14th Amendment guarantees the fundamental right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children."
A staff attorney at the State Department of Education who took Ms Pierce's original inquiry said she could not speak officially on behalf of the office, but acknowledged that it was the first time she had heard of such a constitutional contention.
Blumenthal Expresses Interest
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is no stranger to controversy in relation to the NCLB mandates. Connecticut's attorney general made headlines last year when filing a lawsuit against the federal government over the cost of funding the NCLB mandate to provide testing annually.
He initially contended that state taxpayers would face a significant financial burden underwriting the mandate using the current format of the state Mastery Tests. This week the AG filed an amended action against the federal government, formally claiming that federal mandates are illegally underfunded - even if Connecticut adopts a cheaper testing model suggested by the federal government.
Mr Blumenthal is asking the federal court to rule on the meaning of the NCLB Act's Unfunded Mandate Provision. The provision expressly prohibits the federal government from requiring the state to "spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act."
In order for Connecticut to provide its standardized tests to all grades for March 2006 - as the federal government mandates - it will cost approximately $14.4 million. The federal government has only provided $5.8 million, leaving the state with an unfunded mandate of $8.6 million for the year.
If Connecticut follows the federal government's suggestion and cheapens its testing model - eliminating writing assessments altogether, using only multiple choice in the added testing grades - the state will spend about $9.9 million. Even under this cheaper testing model, Connecticut is left with a $4 million unfunded mandate.
Mr Blumenthal said he was eager to learn more about Ms Pierce's concerns over mandatory testing conflicting with constitutionally guaranteed parent's rights.
"We respect any parent's right to protect their children, and we are certainly interested in looking into this matter once we receive the information regarding Ms Pierce's concerns in writing in my office," Mr Blumenthal said.
Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, who was also contacted by Ms Pierce, did not respond to repeated calls for comment on the matter. However, an aid to Senator Christopher Dodd acknowledged that the senator had received Ms Pierce's correspondence, and he was also looking into the merits of the Newtown mother's complaint.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES