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New NCLB Court Ruling Unfunded Mandates Challenged - Wednesday, January 9, 2008
A federal appeals court has revived a major legal challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act based on arguments that the law imposes financial obligations on states and school districts without providing enough funding to cover the costs.
The Jan. 7 ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, is a victory for the National Education Association and its allies in the suit, which was dismissed in a federal district court in 2005.
A panel of the court ruled 2-1 that the states were not on clear notice of their potential financial obligations when they agreed to accept federal funding under the NCLB law, as legal rulings based on the spending clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution require.
Central to the case was a provision in the NCLB 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.”
The language was first added to several federal education statutes in 1994, including to that year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the NCLB law is the latest version.
In an opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., the appeals court said that because of the unfunded-mandate language, “a state official could plausibly contend that she understood … that her state need not comply with NCLB requirements for which federal funding falls short.”
Writing in dissent, Judge David W. McKeague said the more logical purpose of the unfunded-mandates language was to bar federal education officials from piling additional requirements on states and school districts.
The 6th Circuit covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.
‘Bolt of Lightning’
The ruling returned the case to a federal district judge in Detroit. What happens next is unclear because the NEA, which filed the suit on behalf of nine school districts in Michigan, Texas, and Vermont, appears to have gotten essentially what it wanted in the suit: a declaration that the NCLB law was restricted by the unfunded-mandates provision.
The ruling means that “as a condition of participation in the No Child Left Behind Act, a school district or state cannot be compelled to use its own resources to carry out that mandate,” Robert H. Chanin, the general counsel of the NEA and the architect of the lawsuit, said in an interview.
Mr. Chanin said he believes states and school districts would be on solid legal ground in refusing to use their own funds to pay for NCLB obligations that were not covered by their allocations of federal aid.
(Source: Education Week, January 9, 2008)


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