Court Cases

No Child Left Behind Act: Not an “Unfunded Mandate”

On June 7, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the request of the National Education Association to review the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in School District of the City of Pontiac [MI] v. Duncan (09-0852). 

Background.  The NEA and the school district of Pontiac, Michigan sought, through the Pontiac, Michigan case, to have the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)set aside as a so-called “unfunded mandate.”  In short, the NEA claimed NCLB does not require states and school districts that accept federal funds under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act), to comply with the statutory requirements of the Act if those funds do not cover the full costs of compliance. Their argument was based on the following language:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction, or allocation of State or local resources, or mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act. 20 USC § 7907(a).

The United States, on the other hand, argued that when states and school districts take the federal dollars, they agree to abide by the law’s requirements as a condition of receiving the funds.

Procedure of the Case. The trial judge rejected the NEA and school district’s arguments about the meaning of the unfunded mandate language and dismissed the case. The trial court noted that section 7907(A) restricts the ability of the federal government to add to the statutory conditions for receipt of federal funds, but it does not excuse noncompliance with the statutory conditions themselves or guarantee that Congress will reimburse states for other state and local money they might spend to comply with the Act.

A three judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in a 2-1 decision.  Thereafter, the Sixth Circuit granted a rehearing with the full court (en banc), and affirmed the trial court’s decision via an 8-8 decision.  Subsequently, the NEA petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

In its announcement on June 7 of its refusal to take the case, the Supreme Court permitted the trial court’s dismissal of the case to stand.  What that means, in essence, is that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is not an “unfunded mandate” in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee (the states of the Sixth Circuit).

Conclusion.  So whether one is a school district, teacher, principal, or state education agency, one cannot lawfully refuse to comply with NCLB in the Sixth Circuit by arguing there are insufficient federal funds to meet the requirements of the law.  Whether new or other court challenges urging the same argument make their way to the high court in future years is an open question.

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