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Last Updated: 04/12/2018


6th Circuit Court of Appeals Rules: No Federal Money, No NCLB Mandates

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MIRS, January 8, 2008

A school district does not have to spend state or local money to comply with a federal "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) requirement that isn't completely paid for with federal money, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

In Pontiac v Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education (No. 05-2708), eight school districts led by the Pontiac School District, the National Education Association and several other state teachers unions sued the federal government over what it claimed was an unfunded mandate.

The school districts and union groups claim Congress has not given the states and school districts the federal money to improve year after year in how it teaches the poor to read and the non-English speakers to learn English. Under NCLB, school districts also required to make sure its students, as a whole and in specific student subdivisions, make "adequate yearly progress" in math, reading and other fields of study.

The groups point to a section in NCLB that reads, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the federal government to mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act."

They also note that former Secretary of Education Rod PAIGE said in 2003 that nothing in NCLB "prohibits requiring anything that is not paid for."

They note that the federal money from NCLB was meant for specific purposes, not to be used for general operations and programming so it's not realistic to believe state and local money used to pay for general operations and programming should be used for NCLB-mandated programs.

The Court of Appeals agreed in a split decision. Since Congress enacted NCLB under the "Spending Clause," that any money given to states for specific purposes be set out "unambiguously." In this case, the law doesn't specifically make it clear that if a school district agrees to participate in NCLB that it will be on the hook to pay for whatever the federal funds doesn't cover in delivering the mandated programs.

"A state official deciding to participate in NCLB could reasonably read (the bill) to mean that her state need not comply with requirements that are 'not paid for under the act' through federal funds," the court majority ruled. Appellate judges Guy COLE and Daniel BREEN signed the opinion.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge David McKEAGUE wrote that school districts had a clear vision of what Congress was offering them by way of NCLB. The districts could take the extra federal money and the corresponding extra duties or not take the money but have fewer duties. It's the way the nation's education system works, he wrote.

"What I have described is not the Emerald City in the Land of Oz, bur rather this country's primary and secondary education system," he wrote. "Many of them could not bring themselves to pass up the federal funds, but simply hoped that someone or something would save them at the end of the road. Today the majority does exactly that."

McKeague wrote that the majority's decision allows state and local school officials to design education programs required under NCLB. They decide how federal money is going to be spent and if one of their education programs is "fully funded" with federal dollars.

But if they find a student failing in one program, rather than redoubling their efforts, trying something different, or asking the state or local citizenry for more funding, they can simply divert federal money away from the program, declare it "underfunded" and wipe their hands of the situation without paying back the federal dollars.

"Viola, problem solved," McKeague wrote. "If not for the struggling students. This, of course, is exactly the opposite of what Congress intended to accomplish with NCLB."


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