Where Have All the Dollars Gone? No Child Left Behind Lawsuit Fizzles

By Bumsted, Brad | Education Next, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Where Have All the Dollars Gone? No Child Left Behind Lawsuit Fizzles


Bumsted, Brad, Education Next


On December 11, 2003, the Reading, Pennsylvania, School District, on behalf of "our students and our schools," said the superintendent, filed a "Petition for Review" with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. And in so filing, Reading became the first school district in the nation to sue a state education department over the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

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There were cheers throughout the land as NCLB critics predicted a flood of suits to follow. Amicus briefs were filed on Reading's behalf by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teacher union; the Pennsylvania School Boards Association; and the Education Law Center-Pennsylvania.

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"I applaud Reading," Ira Weiss, special counsel for Pittsburgh Public Schools told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I think they are confronting the reality of this program."

"A small but growing number of school systems around the country is beginning to resist the demands of President Bush's signature education law," reported the New York Times, which characterized Reading's complaint against NCLB as having "unreasonably required the impoverished city to offer tutoring and other services for which there is no money."

"It's certainly going to be closely watched by all observers," said Tom Hutton, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.

But more than six months later, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, school districts had "pulled their punches" on taking action against NCLB. And Stateline.org, an online national newspaper covering state governments, reported that a rebellion in the legislatures of more than half the states had fizzled out. Despite all the saber rattling, said Steven Smith, an education expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, by August of 2004 "there have been no takers." The Reading district's lawsuit "is the only one I'm aware of."

Then, on August 6, eight months after Reading had filed its suit, Pennsylvania's Common-wealth Court dismissed Reading's complaint, affirming the state education department NCLB sanctions. "Essentially, the district is challenging aspects of NCLB that are within the purview of the Department's expertise and discretion," concluded Judge James Gardner Collins, "and this court will not disturb the exercise of such discretion unless it has been abused." The Pennsylvania Department of Education in a statement said it was pleased with the ruling and was hopeful Reading would accept the result.

Incredibly, within a week of the ruling and with three weeks remaining on the deadline for filing an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Reading School District filed a new complaint in Commonwealth Court challenging No Child Left Behind. The district's lawyer, Rick Guida, said that the new complaint was filed because more schools in the district would face NCLB sanctions in the coming year and because the district had new evidence that the federal government was inadequately--and thus, illegally--funding the new law. But as close observers noticed, many of the same issues raised in the second lawsuit had already been litigated in the first one.

Why Reading?

At first, Reading seemed like the perfect place from which to mount a challenge to the new federal law. It was one of the state's largest districts--with 16,500 students in 19 schools spread out over 9.6 square miles--and one of its most academically and demographically challenged. Some 64 percent of the student population was Hispanic, and nearly 11 percent had limited English ability. The dropout rate, 8.7 percent, was nearly four times the state average (which was 2.3 percent). The district's passing rate of 31.2 percent for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test was, according to the state's Education Department, "exceptionally below" the state average of 59 percent in 2002. …

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