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Attorney General: Feds Can't Force No Child Act on State

Susan Notes:
Althought arguing against No Child Left Behind on the basis of money is dangerous--and wrong--any efforts to thwart the legislation are welcome.

MADISON, Wis. The federal government can't force states to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act without fully funding it, Wisconsin's attorney general said in an opinion released Thursday.

The opinion was the first in the country from a state attorney general on the education reform measure, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The new education law says the federal government can't make states or school districts spend their own money to cover the act's expenses, Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said.

"The language seems clear and compelling: The federal government cannot compel the states to develop or pay for specific educational programs," her opinion said.

The opinion could be the first step toward a lawsuit challenging No Child Left Behind, said Scott Young, NCSL education policy associate.

"This is the highest-profile example of a state that is considering a move of this nature," Young said. "The next question I guess for Wisconsin is would there be anybody in the state willing to file suit?"

State Department of Public Instruction officials didn't immediately return messages from the Associated Press Thursday evening.

No Child Left Behind is the centerpiece of President Bush's domestic agenda. But teachers and lawmakers have criticized the measure, saying it costs too much and its requirements are too strict.

The law mandates that all school children be proficient in math and reading by 2014. It requires districts to identify schools with weak reading and math test scores and eventually begin applying sanctions if the scores do not improve.

Penalties range from making schools implement tutoring programs to letting students transfer to higher-achieving schools.

"It doesn't really help education," said state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, who asked Lautenschlager for the opinion. "Education needs smaller class sizes and well-paid teachers. This bill doesn't give any of these items. The law could cost taxpayers millions of dollars."

Lautenschlager said she doesn't know how much money the state or districts are paying to cover the act, but it's likely above the federal funding to cover costs including developing, administering and reporting on testing, helping students reach proficiency levels on the tests and the sanctions.

The opinion said Wisconsin gets about $152 million in federal aid to comply with No Child Left Behind. It goes on to say the General Accounting Office has estimated the nationwide cost of developing and administering the tests alone could be as much as $5.3 billion between 2002-2008.

Non-failing schools might have to expand to take in more students, which could drive up property taxes, the opinion said.

The costs of creating smaller classes and giving students remedial assistance to help them reach proficiency could cost an additional $2,880 per pupil, according to a study by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, the opinion said.

Lautenschlager said requiring such big changes in a state's educational system may be beyond the powers of Congress, regardless of whether the act provides enough money.

The opinion also outlines battle lines in a potential lawsuit challenging the law.

Any suit would have to be brought by a state agency or school district, Lautenschlager said.

Challengers would have to prove they've been harmed by the act, although they might be able to persuade a federal judge that education is so important he or she must take the case to prevent harm.

They also may have to prove they've exhausted all nonlegal remedies, although the language in the act that forbids the federal government from forcing states to participate without full funding is so clear that a federal court might decide to take a case immediately, Lautenschlager said.

— Todd Richmond, Associated Press
Pioneer Press


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