A federal appeals court on Monday revived a legal challenge to the federal No Child Left Behind education law, saying that school districts have been justified in complaining that the law required them to pay for testing and other programs without providing sufficient federal money.The 2-to-1 ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, gave new life to a 2005 lawsuit and appeared to be a setback to the Bush administration.
The ruling came on a day when President Bush marked the law's sixth anniversary with a visit to an elementary school in Chicago, where he said, "I know No Child Left Behind has worked."
Mr. Bush said he had instructed the federal education secretary, Margaret Spellings, "to move forward on some reforms that she can do through the administrative process" if Congress, which has been stymied by partisan strife over the law's renewal, does not rewrite it this year. The law was passed in 2001 with strong bipartisan support; an effort to update it collapsed last year.
The president added that if Congress changed the law in ways that he disliked, "I will strongly oppose it and veto it."
School districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont joined with the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, in their 2005 lawsuit. In it, they argue that Ms. Spellings had violated the United States Constitution in enacting the law by requiring states and school districts to spend local money to administer standardized tests and to meet other federal requirements.
The suit was built in part around a paragraph in the law that says no state or district can be forced to spend its money on expenses the federal government has not covered.
A federal judge in Michigan dismissed the suit.
In the ruling Monday, the appeals court sent the suit back to the lower court, arguing that a passage of the Constitution known as the spending clause requires Congress to give states clear notice of their financial liabilities when they accept federal financing that may fall short of the full costs of complying with requirements from Washington.
"Because we conclude that N.C.L.B. fails to provide clear notice as to who bears the additional costs of compliance, we reverse the judgment of the district court," the ruling said. It also noted that because the states had been required to spend state and local money to meet requirements of the federal law, their "injury has already occurred and is ongoing."
David B. Cruz, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said the ruling could leave the district court judge little choice but to rule in favor of the districts and the union.
But the Bush administration could also appeal to the Supreme Court, and Ms. Spellings left open that possibility.
"The federal government is exploring all legal options available," Ms. Spellings said in a statement Monday. "This decision could undermine efforts to improve the education of our nation's children, in particular those students most in need."
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said the ruling "indicates that if the federal government hands down programs, it's their responsibility to pay for them, so that's a victory for the students of America."
© 2007 The New York Times