NCLB unfunded mandate lawsuits

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, by a 2-1 decision, reinstated a lawsuit brought by local school districts and others challenging the No Child Left Behind law as an unfunded federal mandated. NCLB says that nothing in the Act “shall be construed to . . . mandate a State or [local school district] to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.” The schools argued that the federal government should not penalize the schools, such as withholding federal monies, if the schools do not spend local and state monies in order to comply with NCLB.

Congress can pass laws under the authority of the Constitution’s Spending Clause. But when doing so, Congress must also pay for the costs associated with implementing the law. If not, the law must give clear notice to the states of their obligations, such as whether the state and not the federal government must pay. 

The court found that, given NCLB’s unfunded mandate provision, the law is unclear where funding responsibility falls. The U.S. Department of Education put forward two alternative interpretations of the unfunded mandate language (yes, the fact that the same words might have different meanings does not alone prove the schools’ point that the language is not clear). The court also noted that the previous U.S. Secretary of Education’s pronouncements on the issue confirmed the schools’ positions. The court “wondered” how a state official could be on clear notice when the Secretary was assuring the states that the law did not require use of state and local money. 

The court did not decide the ultimate issue, whether NCLB is an unfunded mandate, but did decide the schools have a stated a valid legal claim and sent the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings.

The dissent compared state and local education officials to the denizens of the Land of Oz who simply took the federal money and then complained. The dissent viewed the law as clear and would not have reinstated the case for a full airing. The majority and dissenting opinions are 29 single space pages. Enjoy reading!

Seems to me, however, that the provision is quite clear. States and local school districts are not required to pay the costs of implementing the law.   But then again, maybe I just can’t see well enough.