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Connecticut poses challenge to No Child Left Behind


Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal speaks at a news conference Monday in his office in Hartford, Conn., where he announced that the state has filed a lawsuit challenging President Bush's No Child Left Behind school reform law. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal speaks at a news conference Monday in his office in Hartford, Conn., where he announced that the state has filed a lawsuit challenging President Bush's No Child Left Behind school reform law. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Noreen Gillespie Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. – Connecticut became the first state to challenge the No Child Left Behind law in court on Monday, arguing that the centerpiece of President Bush’s education law amounts to an unfunded mandate from the federal government.

“Our message today is: Give up the unfunded mandates or give us the money,” said state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

The lawsuit raises the stakes in a heated fight between states and the Bush administration over the law, and experts say legislatures around the country will be watching the case carefully. Experts expect that other states could vote to join the lawsuit or file their own.

The lawsuit argues that No Child Left Behind is illegal because it requires expensive standardized tests and other school programs that the government doesn’t pay for. It asks a federal judge to declare that state and local money cannot be used to meet the law’s goals.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings repeatedly has denied requests from Connecticut for more flexibility.

“Unfortunately, this lawsuit sends the wrong message to students, educators and parents,” said Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman. “The funds have been provided for testing, but Connecticut apparently wants to keep those funds without using them as intended.”

The cornerstone of the law is standardized testing – something that Connecticut conducts in grades four, six and eight. But under No Child Left Behind, the state is required to start testing children in grades three, five and seven this school year.

State education officials say they already know that minority and poor children don’t perform as well as their wealthy, white peers and that additional tests aren’t going to tell them anything more.

Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg said Connecticut has every intention of complying with the law while the court decides the merits of the case.

“I think that we’re at the point where we can’t do these discussions anymore on the phone or in the conference room,” said Sternberg. “We really are at the point where they need to be worked out in a different venue, and that’s in the court.”

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who for months had urged the state to settle its differences through negotiation, recently joined the chorus of state teachers, superintendents, lawmakers and parents voicing support for the lawsuit.

“We in Connecticut do a lot of testing already, far more than most other states. Our taxpayers are sagging under the crushing costs of local education. What we don’t need is a new laundry list of things to do – with no new money to do them,” Rell said.

The federal government is providing Connecticut with $5.8 million this fiscal year to pay for testing, Sternberg said. But, she estimates, federal funds will fall $41.6 million short of paying for staffing, program development, standardized tests and other costs associated with implementing the law through 2008.

The state is not the first entity to sue in response to No Child Left Behind. The National Education Association, a national teachers union, filed a lawsuit last spring on behalf of local districts and 10 state union chapters, including Connecticut.

“It is an interesting case,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. “It’s interesting because a judge has to consider the fact that this is a state that’s suing. It’s not a school district. It’s not a teachers union. It’s the state of Connecticut. So that adds a lot more gravity to the lawsuit.”

In Utah, the state Legislature passed a measure defying the federal law, and it was signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman on May 2. The law gives state educational standards priority over the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

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