Thursday, April 07, 2005

Unfunded mandates my ass

ARGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH. I finished writing this post, hit publish and it published the original draft and lost my finished version. Sons of bitches!!! Anyway:

I was listening to this edition of Marketplace last night on NPR when I heard the most ridiculous thing. The story in question (which starts at minute 2:05), is about the Attorney General of Connecticut's plan to sue the federal government on the grounds that No Child Left Behind is an illegal unfunded mandate. That in itself may or may not be ridiculous, I don't know the law underlying such a claim.

What is ridiculous is the comment a spokeswoman from The Education Trust made about the case. Apparently, she finds it ironic that "liberals" are complaining about unfunded mandates in NCLB, because,

"The truth is, Brown vs. Board of Education was an unfunded mandate."

Hearing someone say this sort of thing on a national radio program makes me wonder whether our political discourse has been stripped entirely of meaning. Are we at a point where the words we speak no longer represent reality and have become mere symbols of partisan spin?

The term unfunded mandate is fairly specific. It is federal law or regulation that imposes a burden on a state or locality without providing additional resources to pay for it. Equating discretionary legislation and court opinions is just foolish. Despite regular conservative assertions to the contrary, court opinions are good faith efforts to interpret our Constitution and ensure that government acts comply with it. Court opinions are mandates only in the sense that they force a government entity to begin doing something it was not before: act within its constitutional limits.

Thus, Brown may have mandated that southern schools desegregate and this may have imposed huge costs on southern school districts, but there is a universe of difference between Brown and federal legislation. Brown identified and enforced a fundamental, constitutional standard; federal legislation, regardless of its merit, merely creates a secondary regulation or rule bounded (we hope) by such standards.