(CN) – In a rare 8-8 tie, the 6th Circuit upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit questioning whether state school officials must comply with the portions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act for which Congress refuses to pay.
Sitting en banc, the Cincinnati-based appeals court was split on the issue, saying the ball is now in Congress’ court to clarify the Bush-era education reform law.
Officials of 19 school districts and education associations in 13 states argued that nothing in the Act forces them to spend state and local money on required programs that Congress left unfunded.
Though the Secretary of Education has said school districts must comply with the Act’s requirements “even if they must spend non-federal funds to do so,” the plaintiffs argued that this puts them in a hard spot, because they risk losing federal funds if they don’t meet all of the Act’s requirements.
This confusion, coupled with inconsistent federal funding, “has caused low rates of student proficiency on standardized tests,” the districts claimed.
“There should be no doubt that states and school districts must comply with the mandates to the extent of NCLB funds received and must support their own prior levels of funding as NCLB requires,” Judge R. Guy Cole wrote for the eight judges who sided with the schools. But he said the Act is not clear enough to allow schools to “make an informed choice” to participate without having to spend state money to do so.
“If Congress intended otherwise,” Cole added, “the ball is properly left in its court to make that clear.”
Cole cited a portion of the law that stipulates, “[n]othing in this Act shall be construed to … mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.”
He said most state officials would interpret this to mean that the state isn’t required to foot the bill for Act requirements that lack federal funding.
The U.S. Constitution’s spending clause allows Congress to put conditions on the money it gives to states, but only if it “does so unambiguously” and provides “clear notice” to the states, Cole wrote. The “only thing clear about (the Act) is that it is unclear,” he added.
The eight judges who voted to affirm dismissal did so for various reasons. Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote that if the Act needs to be adjusted – and there is “good reason to think [it] will be,” he said – judges should not do so by “taking the teeth out of the hallmark features of the Act.”
He added: “It is the political branches, not the judiciary, that must make any changes, because the Act’s requirements are clear, making them enforceable upon participating States and their school districts.”
Because the vote was tied, the Michigan district court’s dismissal stands.