News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
Utah Judge Halts New Policy On Weapons in Schools
A new Utah law mandating a one-year suspension for students who bring guns or explosives to secondary schools has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge amid concerns that it conflicts with a federal school safety statute.
The measure would remove the discretion of district superintendents to determine whether students with guns or explosives merit lesser punishment than a one-year suspension.
The law came under challenge in a lawsuit by the parents of a student in the 73,000-student Jordan school district near Salt Lake City. The student has not been in trouble over weapons possession, but the family's suit argues that the state law conflicts with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, said Brian M. Barnard, the lawyer for the plaintiffs. The federal statute requires that superintendents have discretion in disciplining students over gun possession.
U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball of Salt Lake City issued a preliminary injunction April 28 that barred the state from implementing the law. Lawyers for the state have acknowledged the lawsuit may have merit and have said they will study the matter and report to the judge by June 30.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven O. Laing has intervened as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He argues that the state office of education risks losing annual federal education aid of at least $38 million if the state law takes effect.
Finance System Upheld in R.I.
Rhode Island's method of distributing aid to its public schools once again withstood a legal challenge last week, when a state judge dismissed all but a small portion of a 1999 school funding lawsuit filed by 10 suburban communities.
Providence Superior Court Judge Patricia Hurst, in a ruling from the bench, told lawyers on both sides of the issue that "this is for the voting booth and not the judiciary," according to an Associated Press account of the May 3 decision.
The plaintiffs, representing middle-income suburban districts, had argued that the high tax burdens required to support their schools violated the state constitution's stipulation that "the burdens of the state ought to be fairly distributed among its citizens."
But Judge Hurst said that the constitutional arguments against the way in which the state dispenses school aid were essentially the same as those that were rejected by the state supreme court in 1995 as part of a separate challenge to the school aid system.
The judge left open a narrow opportunity for the plaintiffs, however, by failing to rule on an argument that the legislature has too much power in determining how school aid is distributed. Briefs on that question were being prepared by lawyers on both sides of the case late last week.
—Robert C. Johnston
Many Charter Laws Seen as Weak
Only 19 states have laws that strongly support the growth and independence of charter schools, according to the Center for Education Reform's fourth annual analysis of charter legislation. Of the 37 states that have laws authorizing charter schools, just over half received grades of A or B from the Washington-based center, an advocate of the publicly funded but largely independent schools and other forms of school choice.
The center defines a "strong" charter law as one that fosters the development of "numerous, genuinely independent" schools, while a "weak" law, on the other hand, provides few opportunities or incentives for charter schools.
The report describes the laws of the remaining 18 charter school states as "weaker across the spectrum."
Among the states deemed to have the "strongest" laws is Minnesota, where the nation's first charter law was enacted in 1991.
Connecticut, in comparison, earned a C from the center because its law restricts the number of charters permitted, and because state and local mandates strongly influence the schools' funding and autonomy.
A copy of "Charter School Laws Across the States" can be purchased from the center by calling (202) 822-9000.
—Darcia Harris Bowman
N.J. Creates Urban Schools Council
Gov. Christine Todd Whitman hopes that New Jersey's often-criticized efforts to implement court-ordered remedies for poor urban school districts will get a boost from a new 17-member oversight group that she pledged to create last week.
The Republican governor signed an executive order May 1 to form an advisory council that will oversee and advise districts on how to enact reform efforts, such as reading and construction programs, that were mandated in 1998 by the state supreme court in the Abbott v. Burke school funding case.
Slated to begin operating by July 1, the council will study urban reform efforts both in and out of state, with an eye to helping the 30 high-need districts that are part of the historic case.
Gov. Whitman said the council would "strengthen public confidence that the programs implemented in the Abbott districts and the tax dollars spent on them are effective."
In addition, the council will form a leadership academy to provide school improvement training to state officials, as well as educators and parents in the 30 districts. It will also form a "Distinguished Educator Corps" to work with local and state officials.
"Reforming and restaffing the state education department has to be a priority," said Steven Block, the director of school reform initiatives for the Newark-based Education Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs in the Abbott case. "To the extent the council does this, it will make a difference."
—Robert C. Johnston
Background Checks Planned in Ill.
A plan by the Illinois board of education to require criminal-background questionnaires of currently licensed teachers has run into strong resistance from the state teachers' unions, prompting the board to seek an opinion from the state attorney general on the matter.
The unions object to a plan to ask teachers seeking to renew their teaching certificates about whether their backgrounds include any felony convictions, delinquent taxes, child abuse, or previous suspensions of their teaching credentials.
The state affiliates of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers told their members not to fill out the forms and urged the board to pull the questionnaires from the recertification process.
"To introduce this questionnaire for recertification is intrusive and unnecessary," said George King, a spokesman for the Illinois Education Association.
The state board argues that it has as much authority to question the background of applicants for license renewal as it does for new teachers. Although the board is seeking the attorney general's opinion, it still intends to proceed with the questionnaires as part of new certification requirements due to take effect July 1, said Kim Knauer, a board spokeswoman.
"We want to ensure that we're not hiring people who could be a danger to children," she said.
—Adrienne D. Coles
Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 25