A State Capitals Roundup
Mass. Gives Students More Cracks at Passing Exams
The Massachusetts board of education approved a plan last week to allow students five chances to pass the state's controversial accountability tests.
Under the plan adopted Jan. 23 for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Accountability System, which is given each year to 4th, 8th and 10th graders, students who have failed the MCAS will be able to take "focused" retests designed solely to determine whether they have met minimum passing standards on the tests.
The class of 2003 must pass the mathematics and English portions of the tests to earn a diploma. The MCAS has been hotly debated by teachers, students, and other activists throughout the state. Last April, hundreds of high school students from about a dozen schools boycotted the tests.
"The issue of retesting is an issue of fairness," said David P. Driscoll, the state commissioner of education. "We want to provide students with the opportunity to pass the test."
But Stephen Gorrie, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a 90,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association that has campaigned against the MCAS, said the changes don't fundamentally alter what the union sees as an unfair testing system.
"We still have many reservations about the test itself," Mr. Gorrie said. "This still doesn't address the issue that you can't have a test like this that punishes schools and students."
Suit Over N.J. Facilities Dismissed
A judge in New Jersey has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to stop the state from borrowing $8.6 billion to pay for its new school construction program.
Mayor Steve Lonegan of Bogota in Bergen County filed the suit in December, arguing that the state lacked the constitutional authority to issue bonds to finance the construction effort without voter approval. ("Building Block?," Jan. 10, 2001.)
But Superior Court Judge Sybil R. Moses noted that the state had borrowed money before, without a green light from voters, to pay for public projects. "To continue the case would serve no salutory purpose," Judge Moses said in her Jan. 24 ruling. Mr. Lonegan has pledged to appeal the trial-level decision.
School groups statewide were watching the case, fearing it would jeopardize the lengthy battle to get the state to help upgrade schools. The program grew out of a 1998 state supreme court ruling that ordered the state to provide better facilities in the 30 districts that were part of the landmark Abbott v. Burke school funding lawsuit.
After debating the issue for two years, lawmakers ratified the program in legislation last July, which Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, signed.
Edwina M. Lee, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, welcomed the ruling. "New Jersey can now move forward with the most significant public works project in our state's history," she said.
—Robert C. Johnston
K.C. Takeover Bill Proposed in Mo.
The threat of a state takeover of the Kansas City, Mo., school system, which lost its state accreditation last May, could be even more immediate than district officials had thought.
The beleaguered district, the scene of one of the nation's costliest and most closely watched desegregation cases, has been given until June of next year to improve student performance in order to avoid a state takeover. But under legislation proposed last week by two Missouri lawmakers, the state would take control as soon as the measure was signed into law.
"Kansas City has had long enough," said Rep. Tim Van Zandt, who wrote the bill along with fellow Kansas City Democratic Rep. Marsha Campbell. "If they have another year before the state decides to take over, that's another class of graduates and another class coming that can't read and can't learn."
David Smith, a spokesman for the 30,000-student district, said Kansas City school administrators were focusing on regaining accreditation rather than worrying about the bill.
"If we raise the level of education for our children to get our accreditation, the other things will take care of themselves," he said.
In May 2000, state officials determined that the district did not meet state standards despite a long-standing desegregation case that resulted in one of the most scrutinized and expensive efforts to ensure that all children, regardless of race, received equal educational opportunities. The 1977 lawsuit by a group of parents led to court-ordered improvement efforts totaling some $2 billion.
A hearing on the bill is expected in the coming weeks.
Colo. Tax Breaks Die in Committee
The education committee of the Colorado House last week rejected a bill that would have allowed parents of children in low-performing public schools to claim a tax credit of as much as $3,000 for moving the students to private settings.
In opposing the tax-credit plan, which would have been one of the more generous in the country, the Colorado Association of School Boards called it part of the "voucher family."
The committee voted 6-5 on Jan. 24 against an amended bill proposed by Republican Rep. David Schultheis.
His original bill would have allowed the state income-tax credit for parents of children in public schools that received D's or F's under the state's new accountability program. Parents could have claimed as much as $3,000 in credits for enrolling their children in private schools, or $1,500 for teaching them at home.
Under state law, school performance grades are to be given for the first time this summer, although Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, has endorsed replacing letter grades with categories such as "excellent" and "unsatisfactory."
The Colorado legislative council's office estimated the state would lose $58 million in income-tax revenue the first year if parents of only 10 percent of the projected 192,000 students attending D and F schools claimed the tax credit.
Mr. Schultheis amended his bill in the committee to apply only to students in the lowest-performing 2 percent of schools, cutting loss projections to $2 million. But the panel still rejected the bill.
Vol. 20, Issue 20, Page 19