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Connecticut Sues Over 'No Child Left Behind'

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Connecticut is taking the federal government to court for the No Child Left Behind mandate. Earlier this week, the state sued the Bush administration, claiming the government failed to adequately fund testing and other programs under the act. It's the first state to file such a lawsuit, but other states could follow. Richard Blumenthal is Connecticut's attorney general. He says the Bush administration is not living up to its own policy.

Mr. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (Connecticut's Attorney General): We concluded that the federal government plainly is violating a specific provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that forbids unfunded mandates. Good as the goals may be, the federal government is not above the law. And we happen to agree with the goals, but the point here is that the mandates and requirements for testing have not been funded, and we're saying to the federal government, `Give up the unfunded mandates or give us the money.'

GORDON: Mr. Attorney General, you know--in fact, the US Department of Education has released a statement suggesting that, and I'm quoting here, "the funds have been provided for testing, but Connecticut apparently wants to keep those funds without using them as intended," end quote. What do you say to that statement?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: The federal government has provided Connecticut with more than $400 million, we're talking real money, in education funding, but that money, under Title I, is earmarked for specific programs. The Department of Education is saying to us, `Take some of that money and divert it to the testing that the federal government has failed to fund.' And we refuse to divert education moneys designed for real education needs and classroom improvement and basic education materials to testing that's mandated by the government. But regardless of what we think of the merits of those tests, in fact, the federal government, uniquely to this statute, has adopted a provision that forbids those unfunded mandates. And so diverting the resources, or dumbing down our tests, which the Department of Education has also urged us to do, simply would violate basic policy and law.

GORDON: It's my understanding that the federal government has provided close to $6 million for paying for the actual testing, but it is the peripheral duties that you see as the shortfall here.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: If by peripheral duties, you regard writing the test and grading it as peripheral, perhaps, but the point here is that the federal government is demanding that testing be done every year. Connecticut for more than two decades has done testing every other year and we have a proud record of improving educational achievement in our state, of narrowing the gaps that exist in achievement, of raising the bar and the standards here in Connecticut, through alternate-year testing. And if the federal government wants to impose those mandates, it should fund them. It can't simply define the expenses as peripheral--a term, by the way, that has no legal or practical meaning.

GORDON: Let me ask this, Mr. Attorney General. Prognosticate for me. Let's say the moneys are not OK'd legally and the suggestion by the court is that the federal government has provided the appropriate money, given what is needed for testing. What will this do to the state of Connecticut in terms of its financial standing?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Good question. The amounts at stake for these mandates are literally hundreds of millions of dollars at the local level; in other words, Boards of Education, our taxpayers, are required to spend hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise would go to help students with real educational needs. At the state level, it's about $50 million through 2008. You will see a growing grassroots rebellion against this program. Already you're seeing it in states like Connecticut, where 46 or more local Boards of Education have voted to endorse this effort; our Legislature's called for it. And Utah has withdrawn from the program. Other states, like Maine, are seriously considering joining our lawsuit. So the financial stakes are huge.

GORDON: Finally, let me ask you: As relates to students and whether or not, in the long run, playing this out legally is beneficial to them, do you truly think that this is the best way to handle this?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: We teach our children to keep their promises. We teach our children to obey the law. We're asking the federal government to keep its promise, show us some flexibility or show us the money, obey the law that prohibits unfunded mandates. This provision was designed to prevent exactly what we are seeing here because of the concern that legislators, Republican and Democrat, big and small states, all across the country, had for our children. What's best for our children is that we follow the law and provide educational resources for activities that really enhance their education and close the achievement gaps.

GORDON: All right. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thank you for joining us.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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