Published Online: February 5, 1997


Engler Pushes for Takeover of Failing Mich. Schools

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Gov. John Engler told lawmakers last week that the state should take over failing Michigan school districts. The plan proposed by the governor served notice to the troubled Detroit district and several others that state officials' patience is wearing thin.

Even before he officially described it last week, Mr. Engler's proposed "School District Accountability Act" was making headlines. The plan would allow the state to take over the administration of a school district if more than 80 percent of its students failed the state proficiency test or if its dropout rate exceeded 25 percent.

Gov. Engler said he would like to authorize the state school board to set other criteria that would allow for state intervention.

In a State of the State Address in which he called public education Michigan's "top priority," the second-term Republican governor said stricter measures are needed. He cited the Detroit and Benton Harbor districts as systems that are failing students.

"I defend local control, but I cannot defend failure," he said.

Detroit Superintendent David L. Snead denounced the takeover threat and defended his 170,000-student system, citing its recent improvements on state tests.

He said that evidence fails to prove that dramatic change in district governance improves schools, and he argued that local control is a cornerstone of public education.

He added that the state "continues to mandate programs without proper funding."

Mr. Snead also unveiled an eight-point, 30-day plan under which Detroit school officials will identify troubled schools, meet with lawmakers, and review district business practices.

Renee R. Williams, the superintendent of the Benton Harbor schools, said that her system is improving but has been fiscally hamstrung by the costs of a federal desegregation order for the past 15 years.

While praising Mr. Engler's school focus, she said it was "unfortunate, but not surprising" that his office did not talk to the district before announcing the proposal.

A spokeswoman for the governor said last week that state officials have not yet designated which districts would be affected by the act, but she added that about 10 districts already fit the criteria.

Beyond the tough talk, Mr. Engler announced that the state will reach a school finance milestone in fiscal 1998. "School spending, for the first time, will amount to more than everything else combined," he said. The state's share of education funding has been growing since lawmakers moved in 1993 to abruptly discard the old system driven by local property taxes.

Addressing other issues, Mr. Engler pledged to propose $30 million for schools with job training programs operated in cooperation with local employers.

"It is no longer good enough for a high school to simply have a shop program or a career day," he said. "In this era of high tech and high skills, we must create new options for all students, especially those who are not college bound."

Mr. Engler also used the speech to advocate a bill that would immediately expel any student who assaults a teacher, bus driver, security guard, or any other school employee.


New Tests, Standards Top Carper's Agenda

Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware wants lawmakers to require that new state tests hold students accountable for learning material in core subjects.

Students must achieve at high levels to compete after graduation, Gov. Carper stressed in his State of the State Address last week.

The state is designing the tests to measure student achievement under a new set of academic standards, starting next year. The tests will gauge students' progress in English and mathematics in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10.

"These tests should be capable of helping us to determine, for example, whether students go on to the next grade level, or receive a regular high school diploma," the Democratic governor said. "The new assessments should also be designed so that students can receive positive rewards for attaining quality scores, such as scholarships and merit diplomas."

Legislators should also decide how the accountability measures will be put in place, he added.

In addition, Mr. Carper urged support for legislation that would restructure the state education department, rewriting its duties and making it accountable to the governor. It would be headed by a secretary who would serve in the governor's Cabinet. ("Carper Urges Overhaul of Del. Education Dept.," Jan. 22, 1997.)



Deregulation Pitched Alongside Local Control

In his first State of the State Address, Gov. Frank O'Bannon vowed to make dramatic changes in Indiana education policy that would combine local control with higher standards and accountability.

"Local control must go hand in hand with accountability for higher performance," he said in his Jan. 28 speech.

Short on specifics or proposed funding levels, Mr. O'Bannon, a Democrat, also promoted his "21st century school improvement plan," arguing that the bill's deregulation provisions at both the state and local levels would encourage districts to cut down on bureaucracy.

"It is time to end this absurd micromanagement and focus on what really matters: improving student achievement," he said.



Legislature Faces Rural School Funding

Gov. Bill Graves of Kansas has proposed spending an additional $20 million on small school districts in an effort to iron out funding inequities among rural areas.

Under the state's school finance formula, small districts get extra money to help pay higher costs related to size, but legislators agreed last year that the scale should be adjusted to become more proportional.

The first-term Republican governor said last month that he wants to increase next year's basic aid to districts while cutting the statewide property tax levied for schools from 33 mills to 29 mills.

In addition, Mr. Graves would put an extra $4 million, a 20 percent increase, into programs for children in danger of school failure. "We cannot ask our schools to do a better job with children that society--not schools--has placed at risk, and then refuse to enhance at-risk programs," the governor told lawmakers.



Carnahan Lobbies For More College Access

A college education should be "a goal for all Missourians," Gov. Mel Carnahan proclaimed in his recent State of the State Address. Following the lead of President Clinton, he called for an annual tax credit of up to $1,500 for up to two years of education after high school.

"It is imperative that we make two years of education beyond high school commonplace," the second-term governor said in his Jan. 22 speech. "There is no better preparation we can make for our children's future."

In another bid to broaden access to college, Gov. Carnahan proposed expanding the A-Plus program, a state initiative aimed at curbing the dropout rate and enhancing career preparation. The initiative has been adopted in 71 schools since it was launched in 1993. Students who complete the program are eligible for scholarships.

To boost early literacy, the governor called for a new $750,000 subsidy to help train teachers in the Reading Recovery remedial-instruction method.

Moreover, the Democrat called for tripling from $5 million to $15 million the amount the state distributes to schools for new technology, and making high-speed connections to the Internet available to schools statewide.



Reform Plan Touches Nearly Every Base

Gov. Bob Miller of Nevada unveiled what he called the most sweeping education program in the state's history during his State of the State Address last month.

In a speech devoted to issues affecting children from birth through college, he called for a focus on four principles: access to technology; stronger school accountability; higher academic standards; and smaller class sizes.

He recommended spending $35 million as a first installment toward putting five computers in every classroom in the state's 418 schools. Mr. Miller also asked for more than $8 million from the general fund to train teachers.

The Democrat said the state should adopt standards in core disciplines within one year, create state inquiry panels to investigate poorly performing schools, and fully pay for a plan to reduce class size in the 3rd grade to 16 students per teacher.

"We here tonight were fortunate because our parents did provide for a world-class education system when we were growing up," Gov. Miller said. "But what was good for us then is not good enough for our kids now."



Bush Uses Bully Pulpit To Preach Tax Reform

Gov. George W. Bush delivered his second State of the State Address to lawmakers last week, promising that education and school funding reform would be his top priorities this year.

The Republican governor unveiled a wide-ranging tax reform plan that would cut local property taxes by nearly $3 billion a year, an average savings of 40 percent for Texas homeowners. He said lowered property taxes would come from a 20 percent cut in school district tax rates and a $20,000 increase in the homestead exemption for school property taxes. His proposal would raise the exemption from $5,000 to $25,000.

"Property taxes are too high. They are among the highest in the nation," he said. "But the problem is not just high property-tax bills. The problem is that local property taxes are the major source of funding for our schools. We are relying on a patchwork system that is inherently unequal and unfair to fund our very future."

Talk of cutting taxes has long been popular in Texas, but state officials' desire to avoid instituting a state income tax has pre-empted many of those debates. To pay for his tax cut, Gov. Bush proposed using $1 billion from the state's budget surplus, imposing a 1.25 percent tax on business sales over $500,000, and enacting a half-cent increase in the state's 6.25 percent sales and motor vehicle taxes. And he said all the proceeds generated by the state lottery should be routed to schools.

"If we fail to act, we will be in the courthouse facing another costly battle over school funding," Mr. Bush warned.

Gov. Bush also urged a tougher school disciplinary code and broader literacy efforts built upon school-based "reading academies"--programs specializing in reading instruction.



Thompson Sets His Own Standards

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin devoted the lion's share of his State of the State Address last week to the future of education, starting with a wake-up call.

"While Wisconsin should be proud of having one of the highest-quality public education systems of the 20th century," he told legislators, "it is my profound conviction that we have not laid the foundation for making the same boast in the new century."

Gov. Thompson, who has recently criticized the state education department for the academic standards it has proposed, said he will use the standards developed by the Modern Red Schoolhouse, a project of the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis, as benchmarks. The model is one of seven "break the mold"New American Schools designs. ("Back to the Future," March 16, 1994.)

He also called for a state graduation test geared to the standards.

People across the state, especially parents, should have a voice in shaping local versions of the standards, he said, which would guide for teaching and curriculum decisions in local districts.

He called on districts to adopt their own standards by next year and to have a graduation test in place by 1999.

The Republican governor also proposed a new form of charter schools for Milwaukee. And he renewed his commitment to that city's voucher program, whose expansion was overturned last month by a state judge


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