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United States: Lawsuit Challenging No Child Left Behind Act Allowed to Proceed

(Jan. 2, 2008) On January 7, the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision by a federal district court dismissing a lawsuit brought by a variety of school districts and education associations against the U.S. Secretary of Education. The lawsuit challenged the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), federal legislation aimed at achieving nationwide education reform. The plaintiffs claimed that NCLB had not been fully funded by Congress since its enactment, and sought a judgment declaring that the states need not comply with the Act's requirements where federal funds did not cover the costs of compliance. The district court dismissed the suit on the ground that NCLB made it clear that the states, if they chose to participate in NCLB, would have to pay for any programs required by NCLB, even if federal funding fell short.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed, finding the language of NCLB unclear as to whether the states would bear any financial responsibility if they participated in the program. The court observed that NCLB was enacted pursuant to the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Under Spending Clause case law, in order for states to be bound by federally imposed conditions, the legislation must be clear enough to enable states to accept such conditions "voluntarily and knowingly." Because the language of the statute was unclear regarding whether the states might have to incur additional costs if they participated in NCLB, the court remanded the case back to the district court to allow the litigation to proceed. (School District of the City of Pontiac v. Secretary of the United States Department of Education, No. 05-2708 (6th Cir. Jan. 7, 2008) available at