The day before Thanksgiving, a federal court in Michigan dismissed the NEA-led lawsuit challenging unfunded mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). New York Times coverage, here, and Hartford Courant, here.
In granting the federal motion to dismiss the case, the court agreed with the federal interpretation of what NCLB’s unfunded mandates provision means. Turns out Congress is free to impose unfunded mandates under the act after all: The language just states specifically that a federal officer or employee can’t pile on additional unfunded NCLB mandates. “This does not mean that Congress could not do so, which it obviously has done by passing the NCLB Act,” the court concluded.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings calls the ruling “victory for children and parents all across the country.” NEA says in a press release that it plans to appeal the decision. By the way, the judge found that the plaintiffs do have legal standing to bring the challenge, at least at this early stage.
As we noted before, this lawsuit yielded for the first time a plausible legal argument from the feds about the unfunded mandate issue. It’s not the same as the one they’ve made politically (“You’re free to turn down the money” or “The GAO says this isn’t an unfunded mandate”), but it worked. As the court noted, the federal government argued that it’s not plausible that Congress really intended to require so much of states and school districts, only to let them off the hook if they claim that they have to spend some of their own funds.
While NEA appeals, attention may shift to Connecticut’s lawsuit. That state’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says the court’s ruling “creates a preposterous loophole” to the ban on unfunded mandates. He points out that the decision is not binding in Connecticut’s case, which he says his state still plans to pursue “vigorously.”
Meanwhile, watch as the feds explore more flexibility on NCLB, like last week’s announcement of a 10-state pilot program for using “value-added” or “growth” calculations to measure adequate yearly progress. This is one improvement NSBA has long been advocating. The trick: How to give schools credit for making realistic progress with individual students, without perpetuating achievement gaps. Stay tuned.