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Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Calif. Gets New Draft of Master Plan

A joint legislative committee in California has released a revised draft of the long-awaited education master plan that, supporters hope, will change how the state operates its education system—from its preschool programs to universities.

If approved by the legislature and signed into law, the plan would give more power to the governor, including placing the state department of education under his control.

The governor would still pick state board of education members. But the job of secretary of education, a position filled by a gubernatorial appointee, would be eliminated. The governor would instead pick a Cabinet adviser on education.

Meanwhile, the superintendent of public instruction, an elected official, would be more of an "inspector general" for education— overseeing the state's accountability system and ensuring schools and districts were in compliance with state and federal laws.

The document, released July 30, continues a process begun in 1999 by lawmakers and education officials to write a cohesive pre-K-16 plan for the state. It emphasizes early learning and stresses the affordability of higher education as a way to increase student diversity.

The proposal will be reviewed by an 18-member joint legislative committee, which is expected to release a final document late this month. The final plan will be considered by the full legislature this fall.

—Joetta L. Sack

Pa. Empowerment Plan Dumped

A Pennsylvania plan to single out academically failing schools for extra money and state help has become a casualty of the state's budget process.

Republican Gov. Mark S. Schweiker proposed the idea last winter, but it did not survive negotiations to be part of the $21 billion state budget signed by the governor June 29.

The plan would have expanded the state's 2-year-old "empowerment" program. That program provides state oversight and extra money to districts in which more than half the students score in the bottom quartile on standardized state tests in mathematics and reading over a two-year period. Twelve of the state's 501 districts are listed as empowerment districts. They must design and implement improvement plans, or face state takeover.

Mr. Schweiker's proposal would have provided similar oversight, money, and consequences at the school level. His plan identified 46 schools in need of such help, and earmarked $1.8 million to help those schools improve.

State education department spokeswoman Beth Gaydos said that even if the plan didn't find a place in law, the process of identifying struggling schools still was valuable.

—Catherine Gewertz

Ohio Facilities Chief Resigns

The executive director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission has resigned amid allegations that he violated the state's ethics laws. The announcement came just days after the state inspector general launched an ethics investigation into the commission.

Randall A. Fischer, the head of the commission since its creation in 1997, said that he did nothing wrong and that no one pressured him to resign. He also disclosed that he accepted four free rounds of golf from contractors in 1999 and 2001, but has repaid the contractors $295 for doing so.

Mr. Fischer came under heavy scrutiny in June after a county judge ruled that the director acted without authority in awarding $2 billion in construction contracts over the past five years. Several lawmakers called for his dismissal.

Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, supported the director, but agreed that the three-member commission—not just Mr. Fischer—should approve school construction projects.

Mr. Fischer's last day on the commission was Aug. 1.

— Rhea R. Borja

La. Private Schools Won't Get Tobacco Funds

A judge has stopped the state of Louisiana from distributing $17.4 million of the state's tobacco settlement to parochial and other private schools.

State District Judge Duke Welch granted a temporary injunction July 24 to stop the state's payment. The ruling came after the legislature decided to give private schools a portion of a $160 million installment from the tobacco settlement, according to state officials.

The East Baton Rouge Parish and Calcasieu school districts had sought the injunction, arguing that private schools should not be able to tap public money.

It's the latest legal battle in Louisiana over state support for private schools, including those with a religious affiliation. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Louisiana's right to provide some classroom materials for private schools. ("Supreme Court Upholds Program Aiding Religious Schools," June 28, 2000.)

About 15 percent of Louisiana's 844,000 school-age children attend parochial or other private schools.

—Alan Richard

Va. to Link Struggling, Top Schools

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner recently announced a state plan to provide 117 of his state's lowest-performing schools with help from more successful schools, and from business and community partners.

The governor's Partnership for Achieving Successful Schools, or PASS, is the highest-profile attempt yet by the state to help schools listed as "accredited with warning," based on their scores on the state's standardized exams, or Standards of Learning tests.

Thirty-four schools have been designated as "priority schools," and will receive more substantial help. Four schools—including two in Portsmouth and two in Richmond—will receive full-time technical assistance.

Gov. Warner, a Democrat, announced the program July 19 at priority-labeled Brighton Elementary School in Portsmouth. He said teams of principals, teachers, and retired educators would visit the 117 schools in the coming months to help schools with their problems.

The governor's office also established a Web site, www.passvirginia.org, where volunteers and potential business partners can sign up to help.

—Alan Richard

Former Mich. Chief Heads to Illinois

Illinois officials have tapped Robert E. Schiller as the new state superintendent of education, choosing an administrator with experience leading both a large urban school system and a state agency.

Mr. Schiller, 55, formerly served as the superintendent of Michigan's public schools from 1991 to 1996. He was later appointed by Maryland state officials as the interim chief executive officer of the 109,000-student Baltimore school system, charged with overseeing a restructuring of its troubled finances and developing a long-range strategic plan.

Robert E. Schiller

Most recently, he worked as superintendent of the 45,000-student Caddo Parish schools in Shreveport, La. Mr. Schiller began his new job Aug. 1, running an agency with 650 workers and an $8 billion budget.

The Illinois state board of education selected Mr. Schiller despite criticism from some elected officials that the panel should have delayed its decision until after the Nov. 5 election for governor, so that the winner could have a say in the choice. Both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan and Democratic U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, said they would have preferred to have input in the process.

—Sean Cavanagh

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 26

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