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Lawsuits Loom for NCLB
WASHINGTON (Reuters) --U.S. states struggling with shrinking revenues and ballooning health care spending fear the hidden costs of a year-old federal education law will soon further test budgets already stretched razor thin.
Critics predict the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act could also help power a new wave of costly lawsuits against the states challenging the allocation of state education funds, and in turn by the states against the federal
"We all want to improve the quality of education and narrow the achievement gap between students in poverty and other students," Kansas state Senator John Vratil, an attorney who specializes in education issues, told Reuters.
"But the federal government has no appreciation whatsoever of the direct and indirect costs of No Child Left Behind."
Democrats say President Bush's administration and Congress' Republican leadership has undermined the act by providing just $24
billion of $29 billion authorized in 2003 to help states meet the law's new requirements.
Chief among the law's requirements are annual student testing, training and hiring qualified teachers, and school accountability, which come as states are grappling with their worst fiscal crisis since World War II.
Republicans reject charges they have dumped the tab in state lawmakers' laps, saying there was no specific amount of money promised or
authorized and that education funding has risen by $9 billion over the past two years.
They also say fears about the cost of implementing the act's reforms have been overestimated.
Congress' General Accounting Office estimated earlier this year that states would have to pay between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion to
implement just the testing provisions of the act between 2002 and 2008.
A Vermont study of 10 states found seven would have to increase funding for kindergarten through 12th grade schooling, already states' largest single budget item, by 25 percent to implement No Child Left Behind.
"The consequences for a state are real far reaching," said David Shreve, education lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). He noted that primary education already accounted for 35 percent
to 70 percent of state budgets.
"If you have to increase that by 25 percent you're talking about a lot of money," he added.
While several states have seriously considered forgoing federal education funds for needy children to be spared the new law's
requirements, officials in Vermont and Utah said they had for now decided not to risk the federal aid.
Legal battles looming?
But such is the states' concern that NCSL this month sent a memo to state legislators and their staffs on the possibility of challenging the law in federal court based on the law's own ban on imposing "unfunded mandates" on states.
The country's biggest teacher's union, the National Education Association, also announced this month it was putting together a lawsuit over the alleged unfunded mandates and had begun talks with several states who might join the suit.
NCSL's Shreve and others said they worried the law has also opened the door to a potential tidal wave of costly new lawsuits challenging the level and equality of state public school funding.
Such suits have affected all but five states since the early 1970s, NCSL analyst Steve Smith said, but the new law's emphasis on measuring
schools' success in teaching students to specific standards could intensify that trend significantly.
"It really sets the stage for people to file federal lawsuits," Vratil said. "I don't want to exaggerate, but it has the potential to cost states billions of dollars."
Education law tries thin state budgets
July 30, 2003
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