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Published in Print: March 7, 2001, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Michigan Taps Noneducator
To be State Schools Chief

The Michigan board of education has chosen Thomas D. Watkins Jr., a former head of the state's mental-health department, to succeed state Superintendent of Public Instruction Arthur E. Ellis.

Thomas D. Watkins Jr.

Mr. Watkins, 47, has served since 1996 as the executive director of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fla., an association of corporate leaders in that county. In that capacity, he also served as the head of a business-backed education foundation from 1996 to 1999.

Although he has not worked as a school teacher or administrator, Mr. Watkins is no stranger to education policy. From 1991 to 1996, he served as the special assistant for public school initiatives to then-President David Adamany at Wayne State University in Detroit. In that post, Mr. Watkins directed a university-based center for charter schools. He also completed the coursework, but not the dissertation, required to earn a doctorate in education administration from Wayne State.

During the 1997-98 academic year, Mr. Watkins completed a Washington-based leadership-development program for aspiring urban schools chiefs known as Superintendents Prepared.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Watkins was the deputy chief of staff to Gov. James Blanchard of Michigan, a Democrat, before moving on to several posts at the state department of mental health, where he was the director from 1987 to 1990.

The state board selected Mr. Watkins by a vote of 6-2 on Feb. 23 to succeed Mr. Ellis, who is retiring. The transition's timing has yet to be determined.

—Caroline Hendrie

Mo. School Bonds Bill Advances

Proposals designed to make it easier for Missouri school districts to pass school construction bonds are advancing, but supporters remain doubtful about their prospects for success this year.

Currently, the state constitution requires that school bond issues be approved by four-sevenths of the votes cast in any given election.

On Feb. 22, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would lower the required margin to a simple majority in general elections and general municipal elections. Under the measure, which passed by a vote of 86-66, the higher margin would still stand for school bond issues put on the ballot in other elections, such as primaries or local school elections.

The state Senate's education committee held a hearing on a similar proposal last month, but did not vote on the issue. Advocates of the measure are not optimistic about the bill's chances of passing the Senate this year.

For that reason, the Missouri School Boards Association and the Missouri PTA are continuing their campaign to get a citizen initiative that would lower the threshold to a simple majority placed on the statewide ballot next year. Last month, Secretary of State Matthew Blunt approved an initiative petition for circulation. The petition would need 100,000 signatures for the measure to be placed on the statewide ballot.

"It's very frustrating for school districts, when these bond issues get 53 percent of the votes," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the school boards association.

—Lisa Fine

Ban on Teacher Slurs Struck Down

The Arkansas Supreme Court has struck down a state law that made abusive or insulting comments directed at teachers a misdemeanor. The Feb. 22 decision came in the case of a 13-year-old student who reportedly called her teacher a "bitch" after being told several times to complete an assignment again.

The 8th grader was suspended by the school's principal for three days and was found delinquent by a Benton County Circuit Court judge last year.

In reversing that decision, the supreme court held that the overly broad language of the law violated the student's right to free speech.

"While we do not disagree that the term 'bitch' is derogatory and insulting to a teacher and should be the subject of school discipline and control by the school administration," Associate Justice Robert L. Brown wrote in the court's opinion, "we conclude that the General Assembly went too far when it criminalized undefined insulting or abusive comments by any person to a teacher irrespective of the time, place, or manner of the speech."

—John Gehring

Mass. Issues Rules on Restraint

Massachusetts teachers will be allowed to physically restrain students, under guidelines approved last week by the state board of education.

The board voted 7-0 on Feb. 27 to approve the guidelines, which specify when and how students can be restrained. Teachers will be allowed to hold students who threaten themselves or others, after other attempts to control them have failed. Methods of restraint could include holding students face down on the floor to calm them, under the rules.

The board recommended, but did not require, that teachers have 16 hours of training before using any type of restraint. Decisions over training will be left to school districts, board Chairman James Peyser said last week.

Mr. Peyser said the board's action makes Massachusetts among the first states to explicitly permit teachers to restrain students. Individual school districts and other states have debated the issue in recent years.

Prompted in part by a lawsuit arising from a 1998 restraint incident involving an autistic girl, Massachusetts enacted a law last year requiring the state board to come up with uniform standards for the use of physical restraint.

"Now, parents don't have to be concerned about variation from district to district," Mr. Peyser said.

Some advocates for students with disabilities spoke out against the policy, saying it doesn't require training and may encourage the use of physical restraint.

But Mr. Peyser disagreed.

"The regulations are intended to ensure that when they are used, they are used for appropriate reasons," he said. "They will encourage the appropriate use of physical restraint."

—Lisa Fine

Illinois Spec. Ed. Licensing Upheld

A federal judge ordered the Illinois board of education last week to start certifying special education teachers to teach children with a broad range of disabilities, overruling legislators who had tried to prevent the state from moving to such a certification system earlier this year.

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman ordered the state to begin using the new certification system, which was blocked in January by members of the legislature's joint committee on administrative rules. The committee favored keeping the existing system, which certifies teachers in specific disabilitycategories.

The new certification system was crafted by state education officials as part of their response to a 1992 class action. That lawsuit, initiated by the parents of a Chicago student, contended that the schools had excessively segregated students with disabilities.

In response, the new system allows teachers to be licensed to teach students with a variety of disabilities.

—Lisa Fine

Va. OKs Pledge of Allegiance Bill

Virginia lawmakers didn't manage to reach a budget agreement when they closed their legislative session last month, but they did approve a measure requiring schools to start the day with the Pledge of Allegiance.

The bill that ultimately won approval by the legislature on Feb. 24 would require recitation of the pledge by all students who don't have religious, philosophical, or other objections. It would leave it up to school boards to determine how they would penalize students who refused to participate without a valid reason.

The final measure was substantially different from an earlier version of the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Warren E. Barry, a Republican. That version, which was passed by the Senate, included enforcement provisions subjecting students to expulsion if they refused to recite the pledge without documented religious reasons for refraining. ("Lessons in Patriotism," Feb. 28, 2000.)

Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, is expected to sign the measure into law.

—Jessica L. Sandham

Vol. 20, Issue 25, Page 24

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