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News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Michigan Legislature Revises Controversial High School Test

Michigan lawmakers hope that a revised state high school proficiency test will win over parents who led last winter's protest against the exam.

Hundreds of parents pulled their 11th grade children from the exam, saying it was too long, punitive, and covered unfamiliar material.

The new version, approved by the legislature and signed by Republican Gov. John Engler in December, will still have exams in reading, writing, math, and science, but its total length will be cut from a potential 11 hours to eight hours. And it will be given at the end of the junior year so that students have time to complete the 11th grade curriculum before taking it.

Last year's grades of ''proficient,'' "not proficient,'' and ''needs improvement'' will be replaced with categories that represent basic, advanced, and outstanding performance. Results will be marked on student transcripts.

No designation of proficiency will appear on student diplomas, as the former plan had called for. And parents will get more and quicker feedback on their children's test results.

"Approving the [test], as well as other state assessments, is an ongoing process," said Rep. Sharon L. Gire, the Democratic chairwoman of the House education committee. "This package of reform is definitely in the right direction."

Edgar Vetoes Tax-Credit Bill

Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar launched the new legislative year by vetoing a bill that would have provided tax breaks for families with children attending private school.

The measure, which would have provided a $500 state income-tax credit to parents who send their children to private school, threatened to divert $100 million annually from public coffers, Gov. Edgar said in his Jan. 2 veto message.

"I appreciate the important role played by private educational institutions in Illinois, but I am concerned about the costs," the Republican governor said. "The use of public funds for private K-12 education diverts dollars from public priorities, such as fulfilling the state's obligation to public education."

Mr. Edgar also said that the measure would have raised constitutional concerns by blurring the lines between church and state.

State teachers' unions and education groups lobbied hard against the measure in recent months, while religious leaders--including the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago--and private school educators pushed for its passage.

Rural N.J. Districts Seek Equity

Opening a new chapter in New Jersey's decades-long school funding saga, 17 poor, mostly rural districts have sued the state alleging that they are unconstitutionally underfunded.

The lawsuit, filed last month in Cumberland County, comes as the state remains embroiled in a long-running legal battle over funding for poor urban districts.

The rural districts argue that they are generally worse off than 28 city school systems that have received hundreds of millions of dollars of extra funding as a result of the court fight. Under a ruling by the state supreme court last year, the state is required to ensure that those "special-needs districts" spend at least as much per pupil as the average in the 120 wealthiest suburban districts.

In their suit, the rural districts argue that none of them can afford to spend at that level and that their test scores, dropout rates, and poverty levels are often worse than those of urban districts.

A state education department spokesman said the plaintiff districts receive extra funding to compensate for their disadvantages.

But the rural districts say it isn't nearly enough. They have asked a superior court judge to order immediate hearings before an education department administrative law judge.

Ala. Finance Case Back in Court

The Alabama Supreme Court has unanimously thrown out a lower court's 1993 order for how to correct the state's inequitable and inadequate school system.

But, as it had done in January 1997, the high court in its decision last month affirmed the circuit court's 5-year-old ruling that the state is responsible for the sorry condition of the public schools. In a 8-0 decision with one justice not participating, the court gave the state an undefined "reasonable time" to fix the schools before further legal intervention.

The justices sent the equity-funding case back to the oversight of Judge Sarah M. Greenhaw of Montgomery County Circuit Court. The plaintiff students and school districts can reopen the case if after a reasonable time the state has not come up with an educational system that complies with the court ruling of liability.

The December decision, seen as a win for Republican Gov. Fob James Jr., essentially turns back the clock to 1993, observers said. "It is a setback in time," said C.C. "Bo" Torbert, a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs.

But he said it was not surprising "in terms of the general rule of allowing the legislature to act before you proceed in remedy."

Judge Nixes Wyo. Funding Plan

A Wyoming district judge has sided with the Wyoming Education Association and 31 school districts that sued over the constitutionality of the state's new education finance plan.

In their lawsuit, the districts and the WEA argued that the state had failed to prove that the plan, which is set to be implemented in July, would provide adequate funding to ensure all students receive equal educational opportunities. District Judge Nicholas Kalokathis agreed.

In issuing his informal opinion last month, the judge said the proposed cost adjustment for schools with fewer than 200 students was "constitutionally deficient." A formal opinion is expected early this year.

Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, a Republican, has called for a one-week special session next month to continue work on education finance reforms.

Judge Kalokathis has also agreed to review the plan again on April 6, giving the legislature time to fine-tune the plan before it goes into effect.

Minn. Diversity Policy On Hold

The Minnesota state school board has voted not to make major changes to its proposed diversity rule.

Instead, board members decided to await a ruling on the controversial proposal by an administrative law judge and then make revisions to "strengthen and clarify" the rule.

The judge has until mid-March to rule.

The policy, which would require districts to write plans for closing gaps in performance between groups of students and to use multicultural curricula, has provoked a storm of criticism.

Republican Gov. Arne Carlson has asked the board to vote down the rule, and has vowed to bring the matter to the legislature this year if it does not.

Meanwhile, two GOP lawmakers said last month they would introduce legislation to abolish the nine-member board.

After the board's 5-3 vote last month, its president, Dolores Fridge, resigned. Ms. Fridge, who was appointed by Mr. Carlson last summer, cited legal questions about whether she could both serve as board president and as the state commissioner of human rights.

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