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Connecticut Takes U.S. to Court Over Bush Education Initiative

By Sam Dillon

Connecticut sued the federal government today, arguing that President Bush's education law forces the state to spend millions on new tests without providing sufficient aid or scientific evidence that testing every year rather than in alternate years, which has been Connecticut's practice, helps students. The suit called Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' enforcement "arbitrary and capricious."

The lawsuit is the first by any state to challenge Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind Law.

Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said he had sought to persuade other states to join the suit, without success, partly because no other state could yet prove that the federal law had caused it to spend state money on federal mandates. He said that "fear of retaliation by the Bush administration" had also made some states reluctant.

Connecticut's legal argument, based on a passage in the law that was first put forth by Republicans during the Clinton administration and forbids Washington from requiring states to spend their own funds to put federal policies into effect, follows a similar lawsuit filed in April by school districts in three states and the nation's largest teachers' union in April. But it goes further, arguing that Secretary Spellings has aggravated the harm to Connecticut by denying the states' requests to continue its alternate-year program, which the suit says has made Connecticut students among the highest-ranking in the nation.

"Federal funding to Connecticut for N.C.L.B. mandates is substantially less than the costs attributable to the federal requirements of the N.C.L.B. Act," the complaint says. "The secretary's insistence on every-grade standardized testing," the suit says, "is unsupported by significant scientific research, and is arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law."

In an interview, Mr. Blumenthal said that Connecticut's suit was "not a blunderbuss attack" on the law. "It's a targeted challenge to unfunded mandates," he said.

Still, the Connecticut suit opens a new legal front in a struggle between states and the federal government that has seen many state legislatures protest the law. After a showdown with Texas over a federal ruling on the testing of disabled children, the Department of Education imposed an $888,000 fine on the state this summer, but approved a testing regimen for disabled students that is more advantageous to Texas than to any other state.

Mr. Blumenthal participated in a conference call last week with several outspoken opponents of the federal law, including a Republican legislator who wrote a Utah law that protests the federal law's intrusion on states' rights and a San Francisco parent who opposes the federal law's requirement that public schools provide information on students to military recruiters.

When Mr. Blumenthal announced his intention to sue in April, he said he was in talks with several other state attorneys general who were considering joining the Connecticut suit. Maine authorities confirmed that they had discussed that possibility. Maine's governor, John E. Baldacci, and the State Legislature have urged Attorney General Steve Rowe to sue, also arguing that the federal law is forcing Maine to spend state funds to carry out federal mandates.

A lawyer on Mr. Rowe's staff, Sarah Forster, a said today that he had not completed a study of the federal law's impact on Maine. "All options are on the table for us, including joining Connecticut's suit and filing our own," Ms. Forster said. "But we have to be realistic and look at what we can prove. Since they are now already in court, Connecticut is ahead of us in figuring out what causes of action they have."

The law requires Connecticut to spend some $112 million to expand its alternate-year testing into an annual program and to help local districts carry out other federal requirements over the next three years, while Washington has appropriated only about $71 million, leaving the state with an unfinanced burden of $41 million, the Connecticut education commissioner, Betty Sternberg, said in a report issued last spring.

Federal officials disputed that estimate.

"If I as commissioner believed that the high cost of the additional testing was justified by an added educational benefit to Connecticut's students, I would be the first to advocate the expenditure," Commissioner Sternberg said today. "Unfortunately, there is no body of evidence to show that additional testing of the kind required by N.C.L.B. reaps an added educational benefit to students.

Legal scholars said that previous lawsuits by other states against the federal government over so-called unfunded mandates have had mixed success.

Mr. Blumenthal filed the suit today in Federal District Court in Hartford, and it was assigned to Judge Mark R. Kravitz, who sits on the United States District Court in New Haven.

A spokeswoman for Secretary Spellings, Susan Aspey, said she was preparing a statement in reaction to the Connecticut lawsuit.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?emc=tnt&tntget=2005/08/22/nyregion/22cnd-child.html&tntemail1


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