State News Roundup
A massive lawsuit filed by 29 states that seeks at least $51 billion from 26 former asbestos manufacturers will have a limited impact on public schools, lawyers who have followed asbestos litigation said last week.
The states are seeking the funds to pay for asbestos-abatement activities in state-owned buildings. But because cities and local districts own the vast majority of public schools, very few schools would be likely to benefit if the suit, filed in U.S. Supreme Court last month, is successful, the observers said.
In New York, for example, the state owns only two public schools that serve handicapped students. In North Carolina, 13 are owned by the state, including a statewide program for students gifted in mathematics and science.
Public schools that are part of a separate class-action suit against more than 40 former asbestos manufacturers or that have initiated their own lawsuits probably would not be eligible to share in any proceeds from this case. It is unlikely that the Court would allow them to collect twice from the same companies on the same charges, said Tom Hughes, one of the lawyers for schools in the class action. The trial in that case is scheduled to begin in Philadelphia this spring.
John Ellis, deputy attorney general for Washington State and the lead lawyer in the case, said the states took the unusual move of bypassing all lower courts to file their suit before the High Court because they believed it to be the only forum where all the defendants could be sued and the proceeds, if any, divided after the case.
Illinois should create an outcome-based system for regulating schools, the state's superintendent of education has proposed.
Robert Leininger also recommended that the state provide technical assistance for districts "with considerable problems," and allow high-performing districts to apply for regulatory flexibility to pursue special programs.
The current school-recognition system, which allows the state to rate schools as "fully recognized" or "probationary," is outmoded and inadequate, Mr. Leininger said. "It simply does not address the quality of student learning, how it is assessed, or what is being done about any problems which may be associated with it," he said.
Under his plan, presented to the state board of education last month, the state would evaluate districts on a range of indicators that measure, among other factors, program availability, school finance, student achievement, and student characteristics. The state would also create a "spectrum of regulatory classifications," ranging from top-performing districts, which require little state oversight, to poor performers, which could be subject to regular state supervision.
Gordon Brown, chief of staff for the department of education, said the proposal stops short of recommending state takeover of failing districts. "It's not appropriate state policy to run local schools," Mr. Brown said.
In what is expected to be the first test case of a 1989 Minnesota law banning corporal punishment in schools, a high-school shop teacher in Cottage Grove faces a criminal charge for allegedly slapping a 14-year-old student.
City law-enforcement officials are hoping to use the law, which took effect Aug. 1, to charge Erwin Schnirring with a criminal misdemeanor for allegedly slapping a student who knocked a pencil out of his hand. If convicted, Mr. Schnirring could face a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a fine of $700.
But Mr. Schnirring's lawyer and the state senator who wrote the law say the teacher should be charged with a civil offense, not a criminal one. The purpose of the statute, they said, was to outlaw corporal punishment, hold violators liable for civil damages, and authorize school boards to suspend employees who physically punish students. The law designates no specific criminal penalty.
Mike Hutchinson, the city attorney who is prosecuting the case, said he is seeking a criminal charge because another state law calls for misdemeanor penalties for violators of "prohibited acts" in laws where no penalties are specified.
A private Florida residential preschool supported with $260,000 in state funds is little more than a "babysitting service" for children who are deaf and blind, according to a new report by an independent evaluation team.
In its report last month to the state division for blind services, the evaluation team recommended against providing future state funds to the Jake Allen Centers for Deaf-Blind Children in Apopka. It said the center employed unqualified staff and provided a program with no "educational value."
Susan Allen, the center's founder, said she expected the report to be unflattering because some of the educators on the evaluation team had been critical of the school's methods in the past. The school uses intensive, one-on-one instruction to provide deaf-blind children with a continuous stream of tactile impressions. State officials said other such programs use less costly methods with higher ratios of students to teachers.
The evaluation was conducted in accordance with a 1988 state law that authorized a one-time $260,000 grant to help the center set up a pilot program for eight deaf-blind children.
The New York State Department of Education is working with business leaders and educators to identify the skills and knowledge students need for the workplace and college, in response to recommendations by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the state's board of regents.
The 28-member Regents' Statewide Steering Committee on Preparation for Employment and/or Postsecondary Education, in a report to the board last month, concluded that "the present education system is not adequately preparing our diverse student body for the rapidly changing 'high-tech' world."
The panel recommended that the state raise performance objectives for language arts and mathematics, and that "general-track" students receive more in-depth occupational, technical, or academic instruction.
To implement the recommendations, the board last month asked the department to propose by this summer changes in course requirements and testing that might be necessary to achieve the report's goals.
Local school districts in Massachusetts will face a state suit if they close for lack of funding, the state commissioner of education has warned.
Commissioner Harold Raynolds Jr. said Feb. 1 that the state will retain and enforce its 180-day requirement for all public schools, despite strained budgets at both the state and local levels.
Mr. Raynolds made his remarks shortly after officials in Lawrence, a city north of Boston, predicted that schools there would have to close March 9 if they did not receive more money. The city must raise about $5 million on its own to be eligible for an additional $7 million in state aid.