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News in Brief: A Capital Roundup

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State Panel Pushes Funding For Preschool in Calif.

California should begin offering voluntary preschool programs to the state's 3- and 4-year-olds, regardless of their parents' income. That recommendation comes from a task force commissioned by state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin.

The panel's report was released March 12 after three months of work. It also recommends establishing high content and performance standards for preschool programs and setting professional standards for preschool teachers.

The 53-member task force estimates the cost of such a system at $5 billion a year. It recommends spending about $500 million now to set up the program and increasing funding over the next 10 years.

Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, has proposed a two-year, $100 million expansion of the state's prekindergarten program for poor children in his fiscal 1999 budget.

Conn. Finance Suit Announced

n With financial backing from 12 cities and towns, the families of seven public school children have announced plans to file a school finance lawsuit against the state of Connecticut.

Last week, the families blamed state policymakers for creating inequalities in school funding among districts throughout the Constitution State. The legal challenge comes 21 years after the state supreme court first ruled Connecticut's finance system unconstitutional.

The new group of plaintiffs argues that the school funding formula that was set in the wake of earlier suits is a fair one. Their complaint is with the state's recent amendment of that formula. Lawmakers added funding caps in an effort to rein in state spending.

Cities supporting the planned suit include Bridgeport, East Hartford, New Haven, and New Britain. The group expected to file the lawsuit this week or next.

Fla. Graduation Rates Drop

Fewer minority students in Florida are finishing high school with standard diplomas because of a tough graduation exam there, according to a Florida Department of Education study.

The percentage of black students graduating with standard diplomas dropped from 96.2 percent in the 1990-91 school year to 88.6 percent for 1996-97, the report showed. For Hispanics during that same period, the proportion fell from 98.7 percent to 92.7 percent. The percentage of white students graduating with standard diplomas remained steady at 98.3 percent for the 1990-91 school year and 98.5 percent for 1996-97.

The report was released late last year, but data on minority graduation rates received attention just last month in an article in The Orlando Sentinel newspaper.

Students who fail Florida's High School Competency Test, a 9th-grade-level exam that students first take as juniors, but who otherwise qualify to graduate from high school receive certificates of completion instead of standard diplomas. Those who fail the test can take it over until they pass.

Ill. Seeks Math, Science Gains

The Illinois state school board has announced a five-year effort to raise students' math and science achievement.

The Illinois Math and Science Initiative was announced earlier this month, soon after the results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study showed U.S. 12th graders scoring near the bottom of the list of countries tested in those subjects.

In announcing the project, state schools Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo said the new program will be built around Illinois' academic standards, which have rigorous benchmarks and assessments at every grade level and are already scheduled to be phased in.

The state board will use federal aid and foundation grants to pay for the project.

Religious School Bill Vetoed

Washington Gov. Gary Locke has vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have allowed religious schools to exempt themselves from many state education rules.

The bill would have defined a "religiously affiliated exempt school" as one that did not receive any state or federal funds and would not have had to meet current minimum requirements for private schools. Schools still would have had to follow certain health and safety regulations.

The state's private and religious schools must now follow state standards in setting the length of the school year and in hiring certified teachers. Proponents argued that such mandates are a burden to some schools and that they constitute an infringement on their religious freedom.

The bill had passed 71-25 in the House and 30-18 in the Senate.

In his veto statement, the Democratic governor said that if the bill became law, "the state could not meet its minimum obligation to ensure that all children receive a sufficient basic education."

N.M. Educators Up for Pay Hike

New Mexico's governor has signed into law a nearly $90 million pay package for the state's public school employees.

The state teachers' unions have long argued that New Mexico cannot attract top teachers without more-competitive salaries. Teacher salaries in New Mexico rank 45th in the nation on average when adjusted for the cost of living.

Last year, Republican Gov. Gary E. Johnson vetoed another school employee pay package. This year's package means most of the state's roughly 19,000 teachers will receive a 9 percent raise next year. Any district that maintains its state funding from last year's levels will be required to give those raises. Districts also will be required to offer an average 6.5 percent pay hike for other school employees.

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