Connecticut v. Spellings

___ F. Supp. 2d ____ (D. Conn. 2008), NO. 3:05CV1330 (MRK)

United States District Court

April 28, 2008

In a significant decision, the United States District Court dismissed the last remaining challenge brought by the state of Connecticut to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In the case of Connecticut v. Spellings, the state (through Attorney General Richard Blumenthal), had argued that the Secretary of Education’s rejection of Connecticut’s existing testing plan was arbitrary and capricious. Additionally, it claimed that the Secretary’s interpretation of the NCLB Act violated the Act’s provision prohibiting “unfunded mandates.”

The NCLB Act of 2001 requires states to submit educational plans to the Secretary of Education. The plans must consist of “academic content standards” that will be measured by a single accountability system. Assessments are required annually of all children in math, reading, and language arts. For disabled children and students with limited English proficiency (LEP) the state must develop separate measurable annual objectives for substantial improvement.

The Act empowered the Secretary of Education to “issue regulations . . . to ensure compliance with the act.” One such regulation promulgated by former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, required states to test special education students and LEP students at grade-level standards. Congress provided only one exception to this requirement when it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in 2004, which exempted the one percent of the population with the most significant cognitive disabilities. For those students, the State may measure achievement by alternative standards. The Secretary also held that while the NCLB exempted LEP students from reading and language arts assessment for the child’s first year of school in the United States, they must still test them in math and English language proficiency.

The present case originated as a result of a Connecticut proposal to assess special education students at instructional levels rather than grade levels, and also to exempt recently arrived LEP students from testing for three years instead of the one year that the Act provides. After the Secretary of Education denied this plan, Connecticut brought suit alleging that her decision was arbitrary and capricious. The Secretary alleged that her denial was not arbitrary, but was based upon Connecticut’s noncompliance with the statute’s requirements. This District Court, in several decisions, agreed with the Secretary.

The Court, in a decision authored by District Judge Mark Kravitz, found that Congress expected the same academic standards to be applied across the board. He noted that Congress provided only one exception to NCLB, and that was the one-percent exception from the IDEA. The court also rejected Connecticut’s argument concerning LEP students. The court noted that the three year exemption “flew in the face” of the Act’s annual assessment provision. The one-year exemption was not an invitation to flexibility.

Connecticut’s other objection was that the Secretary’s interpretation of the Act violated the unfunded mandate provision in the Act. Connecticut argued that the Act, by requiring states to test without providing funding, violated the unfunded mandate provision. The court noted that this was an important issue, but ultimately declined to rule on it. It found that Connecticut had yet to timely object to the Secretary’s interpretation so as to give rise to a legally reviewable issue. It noted simply, that a reasonable person could not find that Connecticut had raised this issue to the Secretary for correction with the requisite specificity and clarity before raising it in court. The court noted that it was unfortunate that Connecticut had yet to do this, and suggested that Connecticut go back again and raise this issue. With that, the court dismissed the state’s challenge to the statute. Connecticut has since appealed this decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals again emphasizing its unfunded mandate objection. In a statement issued on the date of filing the state’s appeal, Attorney General Blumenthal stated that “I am hopeful that the Bush Administration, now on borrowed time, will do the right thing – follow the law and eliminate the need for this court battle … [t]he U.S. Department of Education has reneged in its responsibility to Connecticut students, failing to provide full federal funding to schools.”

A copy of this important decision may be downloaded here.

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