WASHINGTON -- The nation's largest teachers' union and school districts in three states sued the Bush administration yesterday over the No Child Left Behind law, aiming to free schools from complying with any part not paid for by the federal government.
The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for eastern Michigan, is the first major challenge to President Bush's signature education policy. The outcome would apply directly to the districts in the case, but it could affect how the law is enforced in schools nationwide.
Leading the fight is the National Education Association, a union of 2.7 million members that mobilized its forces for John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. Its objections to Bush's education law prompted Rod Paige, the former secretary of education, to call the NEA a ''terrorist organization."
The other plaintiffs are nine school districts -- in Michigan, Vermont, and Bush's home state of Texas -- as well as 10 NEA chapters in those states and New Hampshire, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah. The NEA is financing the lawsuit.
No Child Left Behind faces battles on other fronts, too. The Republican-led Utah Legislature voted Tuesday to put its educational goals ahead of the federal law despite the possible loss of $76 million; Connecticut is planning its own lawsuit; and other states are balking over money.
The law is widely considered the most significant federal education act in decades. It puts particular emphasis on making sure schools attend to minorities and poor children, who have long fallen behind on achievement.
Dennis Pollard, a lawyer representing schools in Pontiac, Mich., said the lawsuit is strictly about funding. ''There is no intent to frustrate the purpose of No Child Left Behind," he said.
The lawsuit is built upon one paragraph in the law that says no state or school district can be forced to spend its money on expenses that the federal government has not covered.
''What it means is just what it says -- that you don't have to do anything this law requires unless you receive federal funds to do it," said Robert Chanin, NEA general counsel. ''We want the Department of Education to simply do what Congress told it to do. There's a promise in that law, it's unambiguous, and it's not being complied with."
The lawsuit accuses the government of shortchanging schools by at least $27 billion, the difference between the amount Congress authorized and what it has spent.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, as chief enforcer of the law, is the defendant. She is accused of violating the law and the spending clause of the US Constitution.
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey called the suit regrettable, saying the NEA should join in helping children ''instead of spending its time and members' money in courtrooms."
Bush defended the law yesterday at a White House ceremony honoring the teacher of the year.
The main education programs included in Bush's law existed before he took office, but they are now considered part of No Child Left Behind. During his presidency, spending on those programs has increased 40 percent, from $17.4 billion in 2001 to $24.4 billion this year.
But the suit, citing a series of cost studies, outlines billions of dollars in extra expenses to meet the law's mandates. They include the costs of adding testing, getting children up to grade level in reading and math, and ensuring teachers are highly qualified.
The plaintiffs want a judge to order that states and schools do not have to spend their own money to pay for the law's expenses and that the Education Department cannot withhold federal money from a state or school that refuses to comply on those grounds. Plaintiffs include the Pontiac School District in Michigan, the Laredo Independent School District in Texas; Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vt.; and six districts that are part of Rutland Northeast in south-central Vermont.