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Suits Seek Choice For Poor Youths

A conservative advocacy group took its crusade for parental choice in education to the courts in June, demanding that groups of low-income parents and children in Chicago and Los Angeles receive state vouchers for private school tuition.

In suits filed in Illinois and California state courts, the parents and children named in the cases argue that the local public schools are unconstitutional because they offer an education that is inadequate, unsafe, and lacking in parental control and involvement. "These people do not really enjoy access to the American dream,'' says Clint Bolick, the vice president and litigation director for the Institute for Justice, the Washington-based group that organized the suits. "They do not enjoy the opportunity to send their children to a safe, decent school.''

The lawsuits cite various provisions of the state and U.S. constitutions in seeking rulings that would allow the children named to leave the public schools and take their share of state education funding with them. The Chicago suit, for example, points out that the Illinois constitution requires the state to "provide for an efficient system of high-quality public educational institutions and services.''

"By any objective measure,'' the lawsuit argues, "defendants have not provided'' the Chicago students with "efficient or highquality public educational institutions.'' The appropriate remedy, the suit contends, would be to allow the children to take their "pro rata'' share of state education funding--currently about $2,500--and use it to enroll in private schools or other public schools.

The lawsuits are an attempt to achieve through the courts what advocates of private school choice have been unable to obtain through most state legislatures or Congress. But a number of legal analysts are skeptical that the strategy will be successful. "If they get to trial, it will be an interesting seminar to rattle the cage of the establishment,'' says John Coons, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who supports the voucher concept for low-income families. "But it just does not seem likely that any judge will give them a forum to air it; that is, it won't get past a motion to dismiss.''

Findings Favor Mainstreaming

The degree to which severely disabled students can, or should, be integrated into regular classrooms has been one of the hottest debates in special education in recent years. A new federally financed study conducted by the California Research Institute at San Francisco State University is sure to add fuel to that fire.

The study, the results of which were published in May in a newsletter of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, suggests that severely disabled students' degree of success in school may be directly correlated with the amount of time they spend in regular classrooms.

The finding, says Pamela Hunt, coordinator of the study, "certainly helps decide the argument for more inclusion for kids with disabilities.''

Research conducted on the issue to date has found that students who spend more time in regular classrooms may do better in a single area. No other study so far, Hunt asserts, has linked integration to positive outcomes "across the board.''

The students in more mainstream settings, the researchers found, had better communication and social skills than their lessintegrated peers. They also had achieved more of the objectives outlined for them in their individualized education plans and were seen as more independent. Moreover, the students' parents had better expectations for their future, and both teachers and family members said the children had more frequent "normalized, friendly'' interactions with nondisabled classmates.

Teachers Declared Public Officials

The Connecticut Supreme Court in April issued a ruling that could make it much tougher for teachers in the state to prove they have been slandered.

In overturning a $10,000 damage award to a junior high school teacher who had been accused of physically and verbally abusing students, the court ruled that teachers are "public officials.'' That designation will make it more difficult for a teacher to prove character defamation because the burden of proof in such cases is greater for public officials than for private citizens.

"Robust and wide-open debate concerning the conduct of the teachers in the schools of this state is a matter of great public importance,'' Justice Robert Callahan wrote. "In the classroom, teachers are not mere functionaries. Rather, they conceive and apply both policy and procedure.''

The decision brings to four the number of states in which courts have ruled that teachers are public officials. Arizona, Illinois, and Oklahoma are the other three. In contrast, judges in four other states--California, Maine, Texas, and Virginia--have said teachers are not public figures.

The Connecticut case involved John Kelley, a former science teacher in Groton. Although the state board of education found some confirmation of allegations that Kelley improperly touched and verbally harassed students, it declined to take away his license. Kelley then sued one of the students who brought charges against him, parents of several others who accused him of harassment, and members of the Groton school board.

A superior court jury ordered two of the eight defendants--a school board member who gave a copy of the complaint to a local newspaper and a parent who tried to talk another potential witness into testifying against the teacher--to pay Kelley $10,000 in damages. But before an appeals court could review the decision, the state's highest court took up the case and overturned the judgment and monetary award.

Truants' Parents Do Time In School

The Paterson, N.J., school system and a local judge have come up with a new strategy to combat chronic student absenteeism: They are putting the parents of truants to work in the schools.

Since February, Nestor Guzman, a municipal court judge in the city, has sentenced at least 30 parents of habitually truant students to spend between one week and a month each scrubbing graffiti off school walls, serving as hall monitors, filing papers, and performing other menial tasks.

While elsewhere around the country, judges have sentenced parents to attend school with their truant children, Paterson is believed to be the only district that requires parents to perform services for the schools.

Local school officials already are hailing the initiative as a success. After only two months, average daily attendance rose to 93 percent, up from 91 percent in the 1990-91 school year. The program, says Laval Wilson, Paterson's new superintendent of schools, "indicates to parents that they have a major responsibility legally to get young people to school, and, if their young people are not going to attend, there are some personal penalties associated with it.''

Critics of punitive measures such as those used in Paterson say the programs are short-term cures that do not address the root of the problem. "I have deep concerns about whether it's going to result in anything in the long run,'' says William Rioux, the executive director of the National Committee for Citizens in Education. Too many children, he argues, see no value in an education. "Mandating parental involvement is tempting because it's so frustrating to take the longer, more time-consuming route, but that is the only one that's going to pay off over time. You can't force people to do something they don't really see the innate value of.''

Whittle's Coup Sparks Reaction

The news set the education world abuzz: Chris Whittle, the chairman of the communications and marketing firm that bears his name, had persuaded Yale University president Benno Schmidt Jr. to quit his prestigious post to lead the Edison Project, a company effort to create a system of innovative for-profit schools.

The project has a grandiose goal: to redesign the elementary and secondary school from the ground up and then open as many as 1,000 private schools nationwide that would charge tuition no greater than the average perpupil cost of public education, currently about $5,500 a year. Some educators and business leaders have doubts about the economics of Whittle's plan. Others contend that the project will shift attention from public school reform and help drain the public sector of its most able pupils.

But most observers agreed that by hiring an educator who has been at the helm of one of the nation's pre-eminent universities for the past six years, Whittle has heightened the credibility and visibility of his fledgling project. "People take things quite seriously when the president of Yale resigns to do something,'' said Theodore Sizer, the head of the Coalition for Essential Schools. "That is quite a coup.''

Schmidt admits that his decision to take the new post was a difficult one. "This was an opportunity to contribute to the future of the country,'' he says. "Those of us in the greatest higher education system in the world really need to worry more about the foundation of the system because it is not working well.''

As news of the move became known, some people quickly criticized Schmidt for choosing to make his contribution in the private sector. Arthur Levine, the chairman of the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University's graduate school of education, says the move "is sending entirely the wrong message to the education community. It would have been exciting for Benno Schmidt to move into public schooling.''

Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities, a book Schmidt says influenced his decision to join the Whittle project, agreed with Levine. "If it is idealism which motivates him, I don't understand why he needs to commercialize his intelligence,'' Kozol says. "Why not set up a nonprofit foundation and not give deference to the almighty dollar?''

"If they are successful,'' Kozol warned, "they will have put the first nail in the coffin of public education as we know it.''

Schmidt says such remarks miss the point of the enterprise. "This is a kind of research-anddevelopment effort, funded with private dollars, that the public school system can benefit from if we are successful,'' he asserts. "I think this is the best thing that can happen to public education.''

Students Avoid The Written Word

It's common knowledge: Kids don't read much on their own these days. But a newly released study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that U.S. students don't read much for school, either.

The survey of 25,000 students, conducted in 1990, found that 45 percent of 4th graders, 63 percent of 8th graders, and 59 percent of 12th graders read 10 pages or fewer a day for school; the data show that students read less each day in 1990 than they did two years earlier. And 22 percent of the high school seniors said they do not have homework assigned or do not do what is.

Outside school, the new study found, nearly a third of 8th and 12th graders never read for fun.

In addition to surveying students on their backgrounds and classroom activities, the 1990 assessment included six questions designed to determine how much students understand of what they read. Overall, the results indicate that students have a difficult time going beyond a general understanding of a written passage to discuss and explain what they have read.

Since 1969, NAEP--a congressionally mandated project--has tested a national sample of students in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. A report issued earlier this year showed that student performance in reading in 1990 was roughly at the same level it was in 1971. The new report, however, was based on separate assessments conducted in 1988 and 1990. The results cannot be compared with the earlier findings, but they contain a wealth of data on students and instructional practices that provide a snapshot of America's classrooms.

For example, the study found that despite research evidence about the effectiveness of discussions, writing, and group projects related to reading, most classrooms continue to rely on textbooks and workbooks. Assignments from newspapers, magazines, novels, poems, and reference books are given much less frequently.

In contrast with the relatively little time spent on outside reading and homework, the study found that many students spend hours in front of the television; 62 percent of the 4th graders, 64 percent of the 8th graders, and 40 percent of the 12th graders said they watch at least three hours of television a day.

Copies of the report, Reading In and Out of School, are available for $3.75 each from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Mail Stop: SSOP, Washington, DC 20402-9328. The stock number is 065-000-00-501-8.

No One Is Listening

Most public-service advertising campaigns aimed at urban African-American teenagers are completely ineffective. In fact, no communications medium can penetrate the subculture of black urban teens with messages promoting positive behavior. That, at least, is the conclusion of a new study paid for by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The study--conducted by Motivational Educational Entertainment Productions Inc., a blackowned firm--suggests that these youths are caught up in a social system that encourages dangerous behavior and shuns nonconformists. And, it declares, they are as alienated from their African-American traditions as they are from the white mainstream.

"No messenger and no message is really working,'' says Thomas Gore, vice president of communications for the foundation. "We thought the messages being brought by athletes and rock stars were probably getting through, but they were not if they had to do with lifestyles or prohealth or pro-social messages.''

The study's authors recommend convening black communicators, filmmakers, music-video producers, and public-health experts "to seek a way for this nation to speak effectively to its most alienated children.''

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