Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 has prepared legal action against the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that the federal government is illegally underfunding Connecticut’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The planned lawsuit alleges that the federal government is violating Connecticut’s legal right to full federal funding for initiatives under the act, which mandates annual standardized testing. In becoming the first state to challenge the act on such grounds, Connecticut opened a new phase of national debate on education reform.
Connecticut currently evaluates its students by testing them on alternate years beginning in the fourth grade. No Child Left Behind requirements would expand testing to grades three, five and seven at an additional cost of $8 million beyond the federal funding provided by fiscal year 2008. Overall, the act will cost Connecticut $41.6 million by the end of the 2008 fiscal year. Blumenthal’s planned suit alleges that levying the requirements without providing adequate funding for them violates the act itself as well as the U.S. Constitution.
“Essentially, the government is intruding into traditional state functions and power without providing any resources,” Blumenthal said. “It’s usurping the state’s machinery of government.”
Connecticut is the first state to take the issue of No Child Left Behind funding to court, but Blumenthal said that “every state is a victim” of the unfunded mandates. According to the New York Times, several individual school districts have already taken legal action, with varying degrees of success.
State Rep. Bill Dyson, who represents New Haven, said the lawsuit reflects complaints across the country that the federal government is undermining its own education reform initiative. He said that the Connecticut suit could serve to raise awareness about the difficulties that the nation’s schools face in having to fund the No Child Left Behind mandates out of their own pockets.
“If the attorney general goes to court and he wins the decision, he can expose the issue for what many believe that it is: a toothless tiger,” Dyson said.
But, according to the Associated Press, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell questioned the cost of the lawsuit and the fact that Connecticut is the only plaintiff. Adam Liegeot ’94, a spokesman for the governor, did not return a call placed late last night.
Though Blumenthal is challenging the act on the basis of funding, he and other state leaders believe that the law itself serves to hamper education rather than enhance it. Blumenthal takes particular issue with the annual testing requirement, which he said interferes with a testing system that has worked effectively for 20 years.
Other officials object to the law’s inflexibility regarding special needs students. Shirley Ellis-West, chair of the Education Committee of the New Haven Board of Aldermen, said the law requires that students who speak English as a second language and special education students be tested with the rest of their age group.
“I’m not sure we’ve taken into proper consideration children with limited language ability, and special-ed students,” she said. “Those students impact what our test scores look like.”
She added that the impact of federal underfunding is worst for inner-city schools like those in New Haven.
The federal government has denied Connecticut Commissioner of Education Betty J. Sternberg’s request that Connecticut be exempt from the annual and special needs testing requirements.