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NAACP Details Opposition To `No Child' Lawsuit

March 23, 2006
By ROBERT FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

When lawyers clashed in a New Haven courtroom recently over a federal school reform law designed to help poor and minority children, state NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile couldn't help noticing who was missing.

"It was all white people on this side [of the courtroom], and all white people on [that] side - and the argument is about our children," he told a mostly black audience in Hartford Wednesday.

Esdaile, flanked by prominent national civil rights lawyers, explained why the state NAACP opposes a lawsuit filed by Connecticut challenging the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The NAACP's decision to back the law is an effort to guarantee that poor and minority children are represented in the courtroom argument over how it will be applied in Connecticut, he said. Still, Esdaile stopped short of an all-out endorsement of the law, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda.

"The civil rights community feels we need to be at the table. We have more at stake than anybody," Esdaile said of the NAACP's motion to intervene on the side of federal officials. "It doesn't mean we agree with everything they say."

The meeting at Hartford's Milner School, a low-performing school in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, drew more than 100 people who came to hear more about the civil rights group's stand on a law that has generated controversy among educators and politicians.

Connecticut is the only state to go to court to challenge the law, which calls for a broad expansion of school testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make adequate progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed the lawsuit against U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last summer, calling No Child Left Behind an unfunded mandate and contending that it will unfairly cost state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Blumenthal has said the state agrees with the goals of the law, but "we simply believe it should be fully funded."

Still, some civil rights leaders have characterized the state's lawsuit as an effort to escape the obligation to close the academic gap that finds many low-income and minority children lagging behind white and middle-class children in the classroom.

The achievement gap in Connecticut is among the widest in the nation, and the state's opposition to the law on financial grounds is "very bad policy," said John C. Brittain, a former Connecticut lawyer and now chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., one of the groups backing the NAACP's intervention.

Brittain Wednesday called the achievement gap "the No. 1 educational equality issue in the new century."

Educators, civil rights groups and politicians across the nation are watching the Connecticut lawsuit closely to gauge its impact on the most sweeping federal education law in 30 years.

The debate over the law has been characterized by sharp disagreements, and those differences surfaced at Wednesday's meeting when a member of the audience questioned the NAACP's stand.

"How can we be sure what the law is designed to do is what it's going to do?" said the Rev. Samuel Ross-Lee of Immanuel Baptist Church in New Haven.

He criticized the Bush administration and said it is "horribly simplistic" to suggest that schools alone are responsible for the low academic performance afflicting children in poor neighborhoods, adding that families and community groups also bear some responsibility.

Dennis Hayes, national general counsel for the NAACP, replied: "The fact we entered the case on the side of the Bush administration means nothing. ... I can't say it any more clearly. We're there for the children because we want to find out what the rationale is for both sides."

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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