The New Haven Federal Court held a hearing Tuesday on the state of a lawsuit filed by the state of Connecticut against the federal government and the No Child Left Behind Act.
The lawsuit — the first to be brought against the federal government by a state since the act was signed into law in 2001 — claims that Connecticut is being forced to finance programs and testing required by the act in spite of the law’s Unfunded Mandates Provision. This provision, found in section 9527a of the act, specifies that the federal government cannot require any state to incur expenses for educational programs not paid for under the act.
The arguments brought forth in court Tuesday by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and the defense attorney representing U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings centered primarily on the issue of waivers for expenses required by the act.
“The denial of the waiver is the critical fact because it means we have no choice but to either defy the statute or follow it when we think it’s mistaken,” Blumenthal said in court.
Blumenthal, who filed the federal lawsuit last August, said that on at least three separate occasions, Secretary Spellings denied the state expense waivers that it needed in order to comply with the statute’s demands.
“If the federal government wanted us to undertake these measures, we would do it, but they have to provide the money,” Blumenthal said.
The measures in question require that states administer annual standardized tests to students in grades three through eight. Officials claim that although the state of Connecticut only administers the Connecticut Mastery Test to its students in grades four, six, eight and 10, its students are ranked among the highest achieving in the nation.
In a press release, Blumenthal said training faculty, paying proctors and testing students in three additional grades would cost the state approximately $8 million not covered by federal funding, placing an undue financial burden on Connecticut.
But Spellings’ defense attorney said at the hearing that annual testing is central to the intent of the act and cannot be waived.
“Secretary Spellings has stated publicly on numerous occasions that annual testing of students in grades three through eight is one of the bright lines of the No Child Left Behind Act and will not be waived,” she said.
Blumenthal said in court that by requiring the state to fund federal educational mandates, Spellings had violated the act’s core goals and made its failure inevitable.
Spellings’ defense attorney responded that according to Congress, mandated annual testing is the best way to accomplish those goals.
Federal and state representatives also offered different opinions on the legitimacy of the court case. Spellings’ defense attorney, who sought to have the case dismissed in December, said she does not think there are any standards within the act by which it could be judicially reviewed. But Blumenthal said there are standards built into the act by which it may be judged in a federal court.
Judge Mark Kravitz said the key question seemed to be Secretary Spellings’ and the State of Connecticut’s different interpretations of the No Child Left Behind Act.
“I think the Secretary has to appreciate the state’s point that they don’t want to be lawbreakers,” Kravitz said in court.
But Kravitz also said that Connecticut’s policy of testing less than annually is contrary to the intent of the act.
Connecticut Commissioner of Education Betty Sternberg said she felt Kravitz was had a strong grasp of the issues at stake. But she said she felt Spellings had been arbitrary and capricious in dismissing the state’s request to administer smaller and more frequent exams rather than fund more costly annual tests.
“I really don’t think we’ve had a fair or reasonable hearing,” Sternberg said. “There is a very strong research base to support the educational as well as financial value of what we’re recommending, and I think we’ve just been summarily dismissed.”
So far, 109 school boards throughout the state, including the New Haven Board of Education, have passed resolutions supporting the state’s lawsuit. Others, including the Greenwich Board of Education, are slated to hear presentations by Blumenthal in the coming weeks in order to determine whether or not they support the attorney general’s case.