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School Districts Succesfully Challenge No Child Left Behind:

This morning a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court's dismissal of a school district challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. I hope to have more to say on this later today, and I am sure this is not the last we will hear of this case. In the meantime, here's the opening of the majority opinion by Judge Cole (joined by Judge Breen, sitting by designation).

This case requires us to decide a fundamental question of federal versus state funding under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (“NCLB” or “the Act”), 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301–7941. Plaintiffs-Appellants are school districts and education associations that receive federal funding under NCLB in exchange for complying with the Act’s various educational requirements and accountability measures. Based on the so-called “Unfunded Mandates Provision,” which provides that “[n]othing in this Act shall be construed to . . . mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act,” 20 U.S.C. § 7907(a), Plaintiffs filed suit in district court against the Secretary of Education seeking, among other relief, a judgment declaring that they need not comply with the Act’s requirements where federal funds do not cover the increased costs of compliance. The district court concluded, however, that Plaintiffs must comply with the Act’s requirements regardless of any federal-funding shortfall and accordingly granted the Secretary’s motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Because statutes enacted under the Spending Clause of the United States Constitution must provide clear notice to the States of their liabilities should they decide to accept federal funding under those statutes, and because we conclude that NCLB fails to provide clear notice as to who bears the additional costs of compliance, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court and REMAND this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

And here is the conclusion of Judge Cole's opinion.

The No Child Left Behind Act rests on the most laudable of goals: to “ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.” 20 U.S.C. § 6301. Nobody challenges that aim. But a state official deciding to participate in NCLB could reasonably read § 7907(a) to mean that her State need not comply with requirements that are “not paid for under the Act” through federal funds. Thus, Congress has not “spoke[n] so clearly that we can fairly say that the State[s] could make an informed choice” to participate in the Act with the knowledge that they would have to comply with the Act’s requirements regardless of federal funding. See Pennhurst, 451 U.S. at 25. Of course, if that ultimately is what Congress intended, the ball is properly left in its court to make that clear. See Arlington, 126 S. Ct. at 2465 (Ginsburg, J., concurring) (“The ball, I conclude, is properly left in Congress’ court to provide, if it so elects, for consultant fees and testing expenses beyond those IDEA and its implementing regulations already authorize, along with any specifications, conditions, or limitations geared to those fees and expenses Congress may deem appropriate.”)(footnote omitted). Accordingly, we REVERSE the district court’s judgment dismissing Plaintiffs’ complaint and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Finally, here is a taste of Judge McKeague's dissent:

While the federal government historically has always contributed a relatively small amount to the total funding of local education, increasingly it has become concerned about the decline in the quality of children’s education, particularly with respect to the nation’s most at-risk children. In an attempt to achieve more accountability in local education, Congress passed the NCLB, which revised the earlier Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (“ESEA”), Pub. L. No. 89-10, 79 Stat. 27 (codified as amended at 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301-7941). Although participation in the NCLB is voluntary, Congress imposed significant educational reforms for those states that elect to participate and receive federal funds. Today the majority holds, in an opinion contrary to the way our nation’s education has been operated and funded for centuries, that Congress could have intended that the federal government now fund the entire cost of various educational reforms for our nation’s children. Because there is no support in the text or context of the NCLB for the proposition that Congress intended such a monumental and unprecedented change in our nation’s education funding, I respectfully dissent.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Clear Statement Rules and Federalism:
  2. School Districts Succesfully Challenge No Child Left Behind:
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Clear Statement Rules and Federalism:

Today's Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing school districts to disregard a part of the No Child Left Behind act is based on a federalism "clear statement rule," in this case the rule mandating that states receiving federal funding cannot be held to conditions imposed by the Congress unless those conditions are clearly stated in a federal statute that provides the states with advance notice of their obligations. Especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's near-gutting of substantive limits on federal power in Gonzales v. Raich, some commentators have claimed that clear statement rules are a valuable alternative means of protecting federalism against excessive federal encroachment. I disagree, and stated my reasons in this 2006 article. Here's an excerpt from the abstract:

The Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich severely undermined hopes that the Court might enforce meaningful constitutional limits on congressional power. In the aftermath of Raich, some observers hoped and others feared that judicial limits on federal power might be resuscitated in Gonzales v. Oregon and Rapanos v. United States, the two most significant federalism cases of the 2005-2006 term. Oregon and Gonzales could potentially have constrained the virtually limitless Commerce Clause power that the Supreme Court allowed the federal government to claim in Raich. A less high-profile case, Arlington Central School District v. Murphy, addressed the scope of Congress' power to set conditions on grants to state governments under the Spending Clause. Although the federal government suffered setbacks in all three cases, none of them actually impose significant constitutional limitations on congressional power.

Oregon, Rapanos, and Arlington all involved challenges to assertions of federal regulatory authority that might run afoul of "clear statement rules." These doctrines require Congress to clearly indicate its intent in the text of a statute before courts can interpret it in a way that "raises constitutional problems," impinges on an area of traditional state authority, or imposes conditions on state governments that accept federal funds....

Part III argues that clear statement rules are neither a viable nor an adequate substitute for substantive judicial limits on federal power. Raich poses a serious threat to the longterm viability of federalism clear statement rules. If congressional Commerce Clause authority is virtually unlimited, it is difficult to see how any assertion of that power can trigger a clear statement requirement by raising constitutional problems or by impinging on a policy area reserved to the states.

The last section of Part III shows that clear statement rules are an inadequate substitute for judicial enforcement of substantive limits on federal power. Clear statement rules sometimes protect the interests of state governments, but that is very different from protecting constitutional federalism. Indeed, state governments will often find it in their interest to support the expansion of federal power; courts applying clear statement rules cannot prevent this. In some situations, Judicial enforcement of clear statement rules might even give state governments additional incentives to promote the enlargement of federal authority.

In the short run, this decision and others like it constitute minor setbacks for federal power. In the long run, as I argue in the article, they might actually facilitate its further expansion by reassuring states that they need not fear unpleasant surprises if they support statutes that expand federal regulatory authority.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Clear Statement Rules and Federalism:
  2. School Districts Succesfully Challenge No Child Left Behind:
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