MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Today, Connecticut became the first state to sue the federal government over No Child Left Behind. It is the most serious challenge so far for the three-year-old education law, which was a major domestic priority in President Bush's first term.
BLOCK: No Child Left Behind was the federal government's broadest expansion into the public schools in a generation. Many states have chaffed at the law's restrictions and at what they say is too little funding from Washington.
SIEGEL: In a moment, we'll hear about the states' concerns from NPR's Claudio Sanchez. First, Diane Orson of member station WNPR has details of today's lawsuit in Connecticut.
DIANE ORSON reporting:
The dispute centers on testing requirements under No Child Left Behind. Students in Connecticut have been tested in grades four, six, eight and 10 for two decades, and state officials say the accountability program has worked. Connecticut students consistently rank near the top of the nation in academic performance.
But beginning this school year, No Child Left Behind requires additional tests in grades three, five and seven. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says the law specifically prohibits unfunded mandates, and Washington is illegally forcing Connecticut to spend millions of its own dollars on unnecessary tests.
Mr. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (Attorney General, Connecticut): Our message today is: Give up the unfunded mandates, or give us the money. Live up to the promise of this law.
ORSON: A cost analysis finds that by 2008, Connecticut will have to pay $41.6 million to implement all the requirements of No Child Left Behind; the federal government disputes that number. But state Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg says the suit's not just about the funding. She says if the state is forced to do more testing, she at least wants control to design tests that help classroom teachers.
Ms. BETTY STERNBERG (Education Commissioner, Connecticut): They're actually telling us to--and I hate to use the word--but `dumb down' our tests, do a less-rigorous test, sort of pull back on the high standards that we've had for 20 years. And I don't think that that is what our citizenry in general would want us to do.
ORSON: But federal officials say the testing requirements in No Child Left Behind are aimed directly at states like Connecticut, where despite educational success there's a huge achievement gap between rich and poor, white and minority students. Education Department spokesperson Susan Aspey.
Ms. SUSAN ASPEY (Education Department Spokesperson): It's unfortunate that the state has chosen to address their achievement gap with a lawsuit that takes attention away from their neediest students. No Child Left Behind, at its heart, is designed to close the achievement gap and raise student achievement for all students regardless of race or income or background.
ORSON: And Aspey says the federal government has provided more than enough funding to pay for the additional testing.
Ms. ASPEY: The funds have been provided for testing by the federal government, but it appears the state wants to keep the funds without using them as intended and, in other words, their actions would leave half of its students behind.
ORSON: In May, Connecticut's Legislature passed a bill authorizing the lawsuit. Despite some misgivings, Republican Governor Jodi Rell signed it and won strong support from teachers at a union conference last week.
Governor JODI RELL (Republican, Connecticut): While I would prefer--and I've said this before, I would prefer that we continue to work to negotiate to try to get relief from some of the mandates of--obviously under No Child Left Behind. The fact is that each time we've been turned down.
ORSON: John Dinsdale and Michelle Lacone(ph) are both middle school science teachers who attended the conference.
Mr. JOHN DINSDALE (Middle School Science Teacher): Any teacher will tell you that testing is one piece of an evaluation; it's not everything. And for the teachers of Connecticut, the other assessments that they do give a good picture of what a child is capable of.
Ms. MICHELLE LACONE (Middle School Science Teacher): You need to give funding if you're going to be asking for testing every year. I mean, money does not come out of thin air.
ORSON: In New Haven, where nearly 70 percent of the students live at or near the poverty level, the local costs of No Child Left Behind will be another $10 million. New Haven Superintendent Dr. Reggie Mayo calls on Washington to think about its investment in education the same way it thinks about military spending.
Dr. REGGIE MAYO (Superintendent, New Haven): You know, I don't want to say that we're literally in a war. But you know what? Sometimes I like to think about it that way, that we're in the trenches and this is a war. We're really fighting against some tremendous, tremendous odds, and we need more resources in order to get that done.
ORSON: The state's suit isn't the first time the law's been taken to court. The nation's largest teachers' union joined with some school districts to file a suit earlier year. For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in Hartford.