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Ark. Improperly Diverted School Funds, State Supreme Court Rules

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The Arkansas Department of Education improperly diverted money from part of the public-school fund to pay for school desegregation, but a separate allocation by the state legislature to finance school integration was constitutional, the state supreme court has ruled.

The seven-member court issued its unanimous ruling Nov. 19 in a class-action suit brought by the Magnolia school district on behalf of itself and all public-school districts in the state.

The court determined that the Arkansas Department of Education should not have diverted money from the state minimum-foundation aid fund for schools to assist desegregation programs in Pulaski County and elsewhere.

However, it also said that the diverted funds, totaling approximately $14 million, need not be returned. Pulaski County includes the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts.

The Little Rock schools also received some $10.5 million from the legislature for desegregation-related costs. The court held that move constitutional.

After the lawsuit was filed in 1988, the state legislature authorized use of general state funds to aid desegregation, so that money intended for public-school purposes need not be tapped.

"We contended that it was illegal" to divert money from the minimum aid fund to pay for desegregation, said Samuel A. Perroni, a lawyer for the districts named in the suit. "Both the trial court and the supreme court agreed."

First 'Report Cards' for Maryland

Show Most Districts 'Failing'

Maryland's 24 school districts received their first "report cards" last month, and a string of F's showed that most have not met new state standards on dropouts, school attendance, and skills achievement.

Despite the grades, state education officials remained upbeat about the tougher standards, approved by the state board of education last August, and about the report cards that are meant to force compliance and accountability.

The release of the report cards "marks the starting point for a new level of excellence across the board in our schools," Joseph L. Shilling, state school superintendent, said in a news release.

The report showed that 20 school districts have too many dropouts and that 23 have not met high-school attendance standards. Only 4 have met the goal of having no more than 3 percent of high-school students drop out annually. Half the districts do not meet the goal of having at least 95 percent of high-school students pass a reading competency test on the first try. Only 4 attained the goal of an 80 percent passing rate on a mathematics competency test.

Only two standards--having at least 94 percent of all elementary children in class daily and promoting at least 96 percent of elementary students to the next grade--were met by every district.

Georgia's state board of education has approved a course of study about religion for optional use in the state's public schools.

Beginning in the 1991-92 school year, teachers, principals, superintendents, school-board members, and other members of the community will undergo voluntary training in the curriculum, "Living with our Deepest Differences: Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society."

Volunteers will learn the acceptable approach to teaching sensitive material. "You don't teach religion; you teach about religion," said Gwen Hutcheson, social-studies coordinator for the Georgia education department and a member of the curriculum task force.

The curriculum emphasizes the role of religion in the history of the United States, and, particularly, its relationship to the First Amendment, Ms. Hutcheson said, adding that its goals include deepening students' appreciation for religious liberty and of instilling civic responsibility.

The nonprofit First Liberty Institute--an outgrowth of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, created for the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution--developed the curriculum.

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