News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
Vermont Finance Overhaul Linked
To Increasing Equity
The overhaul of Vermont's school finance system has significantly improved the equity of resources as well as student achievement, a report concludes.
Act 60, the finance-reform measure enacted in 1997, is meeting its three main goals— equity in school resources, in communities' tax burden, and in academic achievement, according to the study by the Rural School and Community Trust.
The research group was created in 1995 as part of the Annenberg Challenge, a national school improvement initiative.
The Vermont Supreme Court had declared the prior finance system unconstitutional because of severe inequities in school funding and residents' tax burdens across the small but economically diverse state.
Act 60 set up a statewide property tax to pay for the state's public schools, along with a new accountability system for students. The new financing method has been the focus of intense controversy in the Green Mountain State, where a tradition of local control runs deep.
Academic achievement in Vermont still often varies according to the wealth of a district and the amount it spends per pupil, the report concludes.
But Lorna Jimerson, the report's author and a member of the rural trust's policy staff, said she also found evidence that the achievement gap between well-to-do and disadvantaged students was declining.
"All kids are doing better," she said. "Vermont is on the right course in the way it funds its schools."
—Joetta L. Sack
Mass. Fight Over Choice Advances
Advocates of school vouchers in Massachusetts plan to continue their legal fight to get a statewide vote on the issue, following a federal court decision allowing them to pursue their challenge to the state's constitutional ban on public aid to private schools.
The Feb. 15 decision was far less than a complete victory for the pro-voucher forces, however. Ruling on a suit filed by the parents of four children who were either in Roman Catholic schools or wanted to be, U.S. District Judge George O'Toole tossed out their direct challenge to the state ban. Judge O'Toole disagreed with the plaintiffs' argument that the anti-aid amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution is discriminatory.
But he said he was willing to rule on the parents' claim that they should have been allowed to challenge the ban politically through a citizen-initiative process.
A petition drive aimed at changing the anti-aid amendment was stymied last summer by the Massachusetts attorney general on the grounds that the state constitution does not allow such challenges to that amendment or anything else touching on religion. ("Two Strikes Hit Mass. Effort To Repeal Voucher Barrier," June 7, 2000.) A trial in the case has not yet been scheduled.
Mo. Names 1st 'Deficient' Schools
Missouri education officials have identified five Kansas City schools as the first in the state to be labeled "academically deficient" because of poor student achievement on state tests.
Teams of educators and state officials will visit the schools, which were the five lowest-performing schools in the 29,500-student district. Those audit teams will recommend methods to improve student achievement.
A 1993 state law required the state education department to identify poorly performing schools using the Missouri Assessment Program, which was implemented in 1998. About 90 percent of the students at the two middle and three high schools that earned the state designation scored at the two lowest levels on the MAP tests in mathematics, science, and communication arts.
Kansas City is the state's only unaccredited school district, after failing to meet any of Missouri's 11 criteria for student performance in 1999. The district has until 2002 to make academic gains or face state intervention. To achieve provisional accreditation, the school system must meet four of the criteria. So far, it has met three.
While the next round of MAP testing will be held in April, legislators are considering a bill that would prompt the state to take over Kansas City schools immediately.
—Karla Scoon Reid
Cuts Proposed in Illinois Ed. Dept.
Gov. George H. Ryan of Illinois called last week for transferring some functions of the state board of education to other government agencies, a move that he said would affect 120 jobs in the education department.
Under the proposal, programs such as the Illinois Century Network, which wires schools and hospitals to the Internet, would be overseen by the state board of higher education. Mr. Ryan also wants the state's department of professional regulation, rather than the state school board, to license private business and vocational schools. While most of the 120 jobs would be transferred to other agencies, an unspecified number would be eliminated under the plan.
According to Gov. Ryan, the proposals are part of the "good, hard look" at the state education bureaucracy that he called for in his Jan. 31 State of the State Address. The bulk of the plan was not devised by Mr. Ryan, but instead by state school board Chairman Ronald Gidwitz and state schools Superintendent Glenn W. "Max" McGee, said Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for the governor.
In his budget address to state lawmakers on Feb. 21, the Republican governor also pledged to form a task force to consider streamlining the state's education regulations. Further details of the plan were unavailable.
Despite criticism from members of his own party, Gov. Ryan urged last week that 51 percent of new state revenues in fiscal 2002 be spent on education and workforce training. That request would raise school spending in the coming fiscal year by $460 million—a 5.4 percent increase.
Vol. 20, Issue 24, Page 20