Maine Prepares NCLB Lawsuit

Published July 1, 2005

The state of Maine is moving to become the next state to sue the federal government over the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As many as 17 states already have brought suit.

In late May, both houses of the state legislature passed a bill directing the state to investigate the costs of implementing NCLB and compare them to the federal funding allocated for compliance.

At press time, Maine’s Department of Education (MDOE) was finishing a study on what NCLB’s testing requirements would cost the state, and it was scheduled to send the report to the attorney general for review in June. If the attorney general’s office determines NCLB is an insufficiently funded mandate, a lawsuit against the federal government could soon follow.

Older Program Deemed Adequate

The issues behind the lawsuit have been simmering for 15 years. In the early 1990s, State Sen. Michael Brennan (D-Portland), then a state representative, sponsored a bill creating the state’s Learning Results program–the result of a decade-long effort to develop a broad range of educational standards for each grade level, adapting standards from associations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

The program’s guidelines were published in 1997. Under the plan, students have been taking a battery of tests administered annually by local school districts, as well as the state-run Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) test.

The complex, expensive testing process has yet to yield the desired results. In 2004 only 12 percent of low-income high school juniors in the state were proficient in math, and 13 percent were proficient in science–yet most of them received diplomas the next year.

Despite this lack of success for the state’s own Learning Results program, in June 2003 Brennan sponsored a bill directing the MDOE to undertake “a thorough investigation of the costs and benefits of participation in NCLB.” The bill, titled “Resolve, Regarding the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” (LD 676), passed May 24, 2005 by a vote of 85-58 in the state House. The Senate had passed it on May 20.

Brennan said he wants Maine to return the NCLB money and stay with Learning Results. “No Child Left Behind is the single most intrusive piece of federal education legislation in the history of our nation. In a time of budget cuts and [military] base closures, we just can’t afford an unfunded mandate,” Brennan said. “NCLB could cost the state an additional $100 million, and it hinders the implementation of the state’s Learning Results curriculum.”

State Accepted NCLB Funds

The MDOE favors Learning Results over NCLB as well. In his written testimony on LD 676, Deputy Commissioner Patrick Phillips said, “determining the costs of NCLB has been a controversial issue. … The most contentious area has been defining what the federal law actually requires in terms of student achievement … and whether federal funds are ‘adequate’ to allow student achievement.”

One problem is that the state accepted the NCLB money and all the conditions attached. According to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), Maine has seen a “47 percent funding increase over the last five years while the student census has declined 30 percent.” Phillips, however, said the MDOE never requested additional funding from USDOE, and that the state had even returned some of the money.

Nonetheless, Phillips estimated Maine needs approximately $11 million more to comply with NCLB’s accountability requirements, as well as any others that go beyond those listed in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Complexities in the accounting process–including separating which administrators are to be paid for routine tasks from federal, state, or local budget accounts–make it difficult to determine whether the underfunding problem exists because MDOE failed to estimate the full cost of administering NCLB or because it failed to reallocate monies to administrative and other tasks in a timely manner.

Frank Heller ([email protected]) is cofounder of the Maine Children’s Scholarship Fund in Brunswick, Maine.