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Expenses At Issue In 'No Child' Lawsuit

February 1, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN -- Is the federal government going back on its promise to pay for the additional student testing required under President Bush's school reform law, or are Connecticut's tests simply more expensive than necessary?

That is a central question facing a federal judge who will decide whether to dismiss Connecticut's lawsuit against the federal No Child Left Behind Act or to let the case proceed.

U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz grilled state officials Tuesday on whether the Connecticut's expansion of its multimillion-dollar annual Mastery Test program does more than the federal law actually requires. That is the federal government's claim in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Kravitz asked state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to amend the state's complaint to answer whether federal funding is adequate to meet at least minimum standards outlined by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Blumenthal filed the lawsuit against Spellings last summer, calling the federal law an unfunded mandate and contending that it will unfairly cost state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Educators and politicians across the nation are watching the case closely to gauge its impact on the most sweeping federal education law in 30 years. The law calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.

Kravitz peppered lawyers for both sides with questions during a five-hour hearing Tuesday. He ordered the state to file its amended complaint by Feb. 28; then the federal government has until March 30 to reply.

For 20 years, Connecticut has tested children in grades four, six and eight, but No Child Left Behind also requires testing in grades three, five and seven - an expansion that state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg contends will cost millions of dollars more with little additional benefit.

The federal government, however, says the additional expenses incurred by Connecticut are the result of the state's own decision to reject a less expensive form of testing.

State officials plan to include a section on writing in the new tests, as well as other questions requiring written answers, although the federal government only requires tests of reading and mathematics.

Kravitz asked, for example, whether the state claims it has insufficient federal funding if it were to administer only a simplified exam with multiple-choice answers for grades three, five and seven.

Federal officials say there is enough money to do that, but state education officials contend there is not. Blumenthal told the judge that state officials also believes simplifying the test, as suggested by Spellings, would interfere with school curriculum.

"There's always the option of dumbing down our tests to the point where we believe they would be inadequate, and we're not willing to do that," Blumenthal said.

U.S. Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Goitein asserted that Connecticut is giving a more expensive test than the law requires, and is using estimates of those expenses to escape its obligations under No Child Left Behind.

Like other states, Connecticut has seen a sharp increase in federal education funding under the Bush administration, but state officials contend the extra money does not cover the full cost of improvements required under No Child Left Behind.

The state will get about $178 million this school year in federal grants related to the law, about 25 percent more than the $142 million it received in 2002, the year the federal law was signed.

Even with that increased funding, a study by the state Department of Education estimates that the additional testing will cost Connecticut taxpayers another $8 million over the next two years.

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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