Bad Strategery?

The National Education Association has finally filed suit over No Child Left Behind. Yes, the NEA is going to court over unfunded mandates. Isn’t railing against unfunded mandates something conservatives do? Sadly, yes. Besides, the core of the lawsuit boils down to the contention that No Child Left Behind is forcing school districts (and by extension states) to spend too much on education. This is, to put it mildly, a novel argument from the NEA.

But the real problem with the NEA’s lawsuit against NCLB is not so funny. The suit could well have the opposite effect than they intend. It’s obviously as much a political as a legal strategy, but rather than build additional sympathy for more education funding, the lawsuit will again be an opportunity for Republicans to call attention to the substantial increases in funding for elementary and secondary education over the past four years, let alone the last decade (including the Clinton second term increases). Get used to hearing 40 percent increase and more than $8 billion for NCLB since 2001…That may not sound like much in Washington, and may not account for some parts of the law that need more funding, but it sure does sound like a lot of dough to the average citizen, particularly the overwhelming majority who don’t get up in the morning hating NCLB.

Overplaying the funding hand by pushing it in this high profile/high stakes way may be still yet another way to make President Bush appear better on an issue than he really is. In addition to the aggregate funding levels, because it’s his secretary of education getting sued, he’ll be perceived as standing up for the kids in the public debate. This tact also further obscures the areas where the Bush Administration may be meeting the legal definition of a “funded” mandate but is still not promoting good public policy. For instance, in the case of assessments where more funding can help stave off a race to the bottom on quality.

NCLB does have one built in mechanism to promote more funding for education –adequacy lawsuits. The data from NCLB will be a boon to plaintiffs who are suing states to create more equitable intrastate financing schemes. Right now, many state finance systems shortchange poor school districts to varying degrees. Here’s a good look at that (pdf). And, as Willie Sutton succinctly noted when asked why he robbed banks, you go where the money is. And it K-12 education it’s ultimately the states that have the lion’s share of the money. If successful, this NEA lawsuit could take the teeth out of these efforts.

NCLB, though not without its flaws, is a law aimed at forcing states and school districts to do right by poor and minority kids. In the long run, does the NEA really want to be remembered for having gone to court to stop that?

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