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News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Ohio Supreme Court Clears State Vote On Sales-Tax Hike

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that a proposed $1.1 billion sales-tax increase aimed at helping schools and providing property-tax relief can go before voters May 5.

The seven-member court ruled unanimously April 3 that the legislature did not misuse a 147-year-old section of the state constitution to place the penny-per-dollar sales-tax increase on the ballot. ("Ohio Lawmakers Agree To Place Tax Question on Upcoming Ballot," Feb. 25, 1998.)

The new sales-tax proceeds--half are intended to finance an overhaul of the school finance system, and half would offset a drop in homeowners' property taxes--would help fulfill a March 1997 supreme court order for state lawmakers to come up with a new school funding system.

In an effort to keep the issue from appearing on the ballot, a conservative public-policy group, the Ohio Roundtable, filed suit in February, arguing that the legislature violated the state constitution by passing a law with funding contingent upon voter approval.

But in its unsigned opinion, the high court said the lawsuit failed to prove any violations of the Ohio Constitution.

Death-Penalty Bill Advances

Mississippi lawmakers have sent Gov. Kirk Fordice a bill that would expand the state's death-penalty statute to cover murders on K-12 and college campuses.

The state Senate and House passed the bill March 31 by votes of 46-6 and 113-2, respectively.

Other homicides that qualify as capital crimes in Mississippi include the murder of law-enforcement agents.

The family of Christine Menefee, one of two students fatally shot last year at the 1,039-student Pearl High School near Jackson, lobbied for the bill. ("Six Charged as Conspirators in Miss. High School Slayings," Oct. 15, 1997.)

Robbie Wilbur, the spokesman for the Republican governor, said that the proposal was not part of Mr. Fordice's legislative package. But, Mr. Wilbur added, "he's signed all other death-penalty bills. I imagine he'd sign this one."

Fla. Weighs District Breakups

Although the effort to split Florida's largest countywide school systems into separate, independent districts has died in the state's Constitution Review Commission, the measure is alive and seemingly well in Tallahassee.

Florida's House of Representatives approved a bill 73-40 April 8 that would allow districts with more than 45,000 students to subdivide into districts with no fewer than 20,000 students each.

Rep. Tom Warner, the Republican sponsor of the legislation, said in an interview that the state's largest districts--13 of the state's 67 countywide school systems are larger than 45,000 students--are unmanageable, unresponsive, and offer "no sense of community."

But opponents argue that the plan would increase bureaucracy and say that the new districts would separate wealthy communities from poorer ones.

Proposals to amend the state constitution require a three-fifths vote of the House and the Senate, which is expected to vote on the plan this week. ("Florida Panel Weighs Plan To Allow Smaller Districts," Feb. 25, 1998.)

If approved by the legislature, the issue would be put before voters on the November ballot.

Charter Teachers Scrutinized

The Michigan Department of Education is continuing an investigation into allegations that six of the state's charter schools have hired noncertified teachers.

A preliminary investigation into 132 teachers identified in a previous complaint found that six of the teachers had been denied a teaching permit and that no records could be found for five other teachers.

The complaint was filed last December by Central Michigan University's charter school office, which accredits about half the state's roughly 100 charter schools. Fourteen of the teachers named in the complaint are no longer employed in the schools.

"Any classroom that does not have a certified teacher, that's a big deal," said Deb Small, the spokeswoman for the department. "But six out of 132, that's a relatively small number."

The investigation elicited some strong reactions from members of the state school board.

Board member Herbert S. Moyer said, "We want these schools to succeed, but I'm very concerned with the apparent cavalier attitude of some of the charter schools in their hiring practices."

Nebraska Opts for State Tests

Nebraska has climbed aboard the accountability bandwagon.

Gov. Ben Nelson last week signed a bill into law that provides for statewide tests of students' academic performance, a statewide financial-reporting system, and rewards for districts that meet certain standards. In the name of local control, Nebraska has up to now largely resisted such measures.

The new law comes a year after the legislature overhauled the school finance formula, pumping in extra state aid to make up for the effects of a new cap on property-tax rates.

Under the accountability law, the state school board must adopt and pay for a commercial achievement test to gauge the performance of 4th through 12th graders. The board must also provide districts with a computerized financial-reporting system. Finally, the measure sets up $50-per-student incentive payments for districts that meet certain criteria, including having at least 60 percent of graduating seniors take a college-entrance exam on which, in aggregate, they score above the statewide average. ("In Policy Shift, Nebraska Advances State Assessment Plan," March 25, 1998.)

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