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NAACP Opposes State Lawsuit

January 31, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Connecticut's lawsuit against President Bush's school reform act could harm low-income and minority schoolchildren, wastes money and threatens to undermine other civil rights laws, the state NAACP said Monday.

The organization filed a motion Monday to intervene on the side of the U.S. Department of Education, which is scheduled to argue in a New Haven federal court today to dismiss Connecticut's challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act.

The decision to back the Bush administration's controversial school reform law "was very unorthodox for the NAACP," said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the state chapter, but he said Connecticut's opposition to the federal law amounts to an excuse to avoid helping minority schoolchildren.

State officials, he said, "are looking for loopholes, looking for ways to get out of what they need to do."

The disagreement reflects a national debate over the most sweeping federal education law in a generation. The law calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make sufficient progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.

A key goal of No Child Left Behind is to close the achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority children lagging academically behind white and middle-class children.

More than two-thirds of the state's school boards have lined up behind the state's lawsuit, which was filed by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal last summer against U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Blumenthal called the law an unfunded mandate, contending it will unfairly cost state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

But some civil rights advocates say the law has focused long overdue attention on low-income and minority children.

"We believe minority children in Connecticut deserve a voice at the table in this litigation," said John C. Brittain, a former Connecticut lawyer and now chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., one of the groups backing the NAACP's intervention.

Brittain was one of the lawyers in the long-running Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case, which resulted in a state Supreme Court ruling ordering Connecticut to reduce the level of racial and economic segregation in Hartford's public schools.

With Connecticut's low-income and minority children facing some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation, the lawsuit against No Child Left Behind is ill-advised, he said.

"We certainly think it's a waste of time and resources," Brittain said. He said the state's contention that it should not have to follow provisions of the law because of inadequate funding could set a dangerous precedent for other civil rights laws. "The 1964 Civil Rights Act was an unfunded mandate," he said.

The U.S. Department of Education contends the state has accepted more than $750 million since 2002 based on its pledge to comply with the law but now is seeking "to keep the funds while jettisoning the accompanying obligations."

Blumenthal issued a statement Monday saying, "I regret that the NAACP and my office are on different legal sides when we share the basic goals of No Child Left Behind." He said the state believes in imposing accountability and improving achievement for all children, "but the federal failure to properly implement and support [those goals] betrays our children and their education."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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