Current Events: In Brief
NEA Ponders Year-Round Contracts
The National Education Association has taken a step toward putting year-round teaching contracts on the school reform agenda. The union's board of directors voted in February to distribute a report advocating 12month contracts to all of its state and local affiliates for what officials describe as "planning purposes.'' The report, which also recommends that teachers devote at least half their time to professional development, has been presented to other national education groups, as well, according to Gary Watts, executive director of the NEA's National Center for Innovation.
The center collaborated on the study with a panel of seven teachers convened by the union in 1992. The panel's findings were released last year, but the union's board of directors wanted to review and discuss the study thoroughly before taking an official position on it.
NEA President Keith Geiger and other union leaders have praised the report, titled It's About Time, but it is only now being widely distributed among the union's rank and file. Observers say that if the suggestions are embraced by local union leaders, they could have an impact on collective bargaining and on how school officials and the public view the teaching profession.
Extending standard teachers' contracts, the report says, would give schools more flexibility to change the length and configuration of the student school year, to plan and develop new curriculum offerings, and to set aside time for professional development. If teachers had more control over time, it says, decisions on curriculum and instruction would tend to be based on students' needs rather than on administrative convenience.
The panel's members also say introducing year-round contracts is one way to help professionalize teaching. "The myth that teachers only work nine months a year and a six-hour day,'' the report states, "is destructive for seeking improved compensation and for garnering increased public support for public education.''
Although the NEA has received some positive feedback from other education groups, the ideas contained in the study probably will run up against barriers, not the least of which is a lack of funding. "You're asking school districts to shake a pretty big money tree to implement this,'' says Michael Resnick, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association.
And opposition is also likely from within the union itself. Some teachers, for example, fear that district officials or state lawmakers might misuse the study and try to extend the school year or contracts without giving teachers additional compensation. And then there are those who simply are resistant to the idea of giving up the two or three months a year they have for independent professional development, a second job, or vacation.
Riley Pushes School Reform
Sounding a prominent Clinton administration theme, Secretary of Education Richard Riley in February challenged Americans to face up to personal, family, and community responsibilities "in an effort to reconnect children to learning.''
In a 50-minute address that was billed as a speech on the "state of American education,'' Riley called on educators--and the nation--to unite behind the cause of reform. He cited four critical areas for improvement: increasing parental involvement, reconnecting alienated minority youths to the education system, linking K-12 reform with similar efforts in higher education, and increasing the use of educational technology.
"The issue,'' Secretary Riley said, "is...whether we are changing fast enough to save and educate this generation of young people, whether education has kept up with the fundamental and far-reaching changes in the economic and social structure of this nation.''
It was not Riley's typical stump speech. Although he plugged the administration's legislative agenda, the address was perhaps the first time he has sought national exposure to express his general concerns about American education. More than anything, Riley said, he is "troubled'' by a "disconnection so pervasive between adult America and the children of America that we are all losing touch with each other.''
Riley also urged combatants in the national education debate to take politics out of the equation and look for some common ground. "We cannot reconnect our young people to learning,'' the secretary said, "if public education continues to be condemned without relief, if we become fixated on negative musings destructive to the future of public education.'' At the same time, he added, "nothing is gained by the intransigence of some in the education community who see any outside reform or proposed innovation as unneeded, unwanted, and unnecessary.''
Riley tied his focus on minority youths to the administration's push to set standards for student performance. By setting the same high standards for all students without regard to race, native language, or income, he argued, the education system can prevent minority youths from becoming disaffected.
The secretary spoke at George- town University to roughly 500 education, business, labor, and political leaders convened by the Department of Education. The invitation-only format has worked for Riley before. As governor of South Carolina, he used it to drum up support for his education reform program.
Homeschoolers Flood Lawmakers With Phone Calls
Anyone calling the office of U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., during the last two weeks of February was greeted with this recorded message:
"This is George Miller's office. Due to the volume of calls regarding HR 6, we're unable to get your call at this time. Mr. Miller supports HR 6 and regrets any misunderstanding regarding its effect on homeschoolers. He will be happy to support changes to HR 6 that will reaffirm that home- schooling rights are protected, while maintaining the integrity of other provisions of the act.''
As the House of Representatives prepared to debate HR 6-- the legislation that would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act--members of the education and labor committee were caught in a fullcourt press by homeschoolers angered over a provision sponsored by Miller. That provision would have required school districts to ensure by 1998 that teachers in certain disciplines are certified to teach their subjects.
Homeschoolers, fearing that the provision would cover those in their ranks considered to be under the jurisdiction of a local school board, went on the attack, virtually shutting down several representatives' offices. Some lawmakers received as many as 80 calls an hour and had homeschoolers camped out in their lobbies.
Miller and others say the homeschooling advocates misread the provision's intent. Still, it was eliminated from the legislation by an amendment offered on the House floor.
Word of the Miller provision was apparently spread by televangelist Pat Robertson and conservative radio and television commentator Rush Limbaugh.
States Rush To Rethink School Finance
When taxpayers get mad as hell, lawmakers tend to listen. And what they're hearing these days could spell the end of property taxes as the chief source of school funding in a number of states.
Taking their cue from Michigan lawmakers, who last year abolished $5.6 billion worth of local taxes used to support schools, legislators from a wide range of states are now considering their own versions of propertytax rollbacks.
Analysts have long seen property taxes as the leading source of funding inequities between wealthy and poor school districts. Such disparities are at the heart of a wave of lawsuits challenging finance systems in nearly half the states. The movement afoot in statehouses, however, is far more reflective of voter anger over property-tax bills than concern over inequities. Nevertheless, most observers agree that shifting school support from property taxes to statewide income or sales taxes would probably have the effect of reducing school-funding differences within states.
The most dramatic new evidence of the rush to rethink school finance came early this year in Wisconsin, where the Democratic-controlled assembly passed, on an 81-18 vote, a plan to move away from property-tax funding for schools by 1995. "We've hit a nerve,'' said Speaker of the House Walter Kunicki, the measure's chief sponsor. "Taxpayers have demanded it, the governor has promised it, and we can deliver it.''
Since the House bill passed, opponents have raised concerns about the $3 billion gap in school funding it would create. They warn that raising other state taxes to cover the amount could wreck the state's economy. State Sen. Michael Ellis, the majority leader, has vowed not to allow a Senate vote on the bill during this legislative session, offering instead a plan to freeze school property-tax rates and study the effect of income-tax increases.
Yet supporters and observers alike say the interest in the idea may soon overcome any political hurdles put in its path. Speaker Kunicki recently flew to Ellis' district to whip up support for the property-tax repeal and is waging a high-profile political fight to allow a vote in the Senate.
Similar tax-reform bills are being considered in Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. And a Nebraska group is seeking signatures to launch an initiative in that state.
"There has always been a resentment toward property taxes, which are viewed as the most arbitrary and unfair of all taxes,'' says Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. "That disdain, combined with the perception that people are not getting much value for their education dollar, has created a pretty powerful consensus for reform.''
Meanwhile, Michigan voters were still debating at press time whether the property-tax funds lawmakers cut in that state should be replaced by sales or income taxes. An election on the issue was slated for March 15.
State Lawmakers Try To Put Prayer Back Into Schools
Lawmakers in at least six states have jumped into the fray over prayer in public schools, introducing bills that they hope will give legal support to student-initiated prayer at graduations and other noncompulsory school events.
Sponsors say the measures are written to be consistent with a much-debated 1992 ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that approved student-led, nonsectarian prayer at a Texas high school graduation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier that year that school-sponsored prayer at graduation is unconstitutional, but last year it let the 5th Circuit's ruling stand. Many advocates of strict church-state separation, however, still doubt the constitutionality of the appellate court's ruling.
The bills proposed in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are not confined to prayer at graduation. Several endorse prayer at school athletic contests and assemblies, and one of three introduced in Mississippi would permit "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing student-initiated voluntary prayer'' at all school events, not just at those that are not compulsory. One of the other Mississippi bills would reduce state funding of school districts that bar voluntary prayer.
Most observers agree that an episode last fall involving a Jackson, Miss., high school administrator has fueled the current push in statehouses. Principal Bishop Knox was fired in November after he allowed students to read prayers over the intercom on three mornings, against the advice of school district lawyers. The Jackson school board later reinstated Knox but suspended him without pay for the rest of the school year. Many students and local residents, as well as Gov. Kirk Fordice, rallied on behalf of the principal and demanded a return of student-led prayer to public schools.
Supporters of the prayer bills believe they pass constitutional muster. Something is wrong with the system, they say, if students can get condoms at school but can't pray at graduation ceremonies and other school events. "We feel that God has been left sitting on the shelf long enough,'' says Fay Mowdy, leader of a grassroots Mississippi group called Christians Revolutionizing America for Christ. "Putting God back in our schools is the answer.'' [See "Soul Searching,'' September 1993.]
Advocates of strict churchstate separation contend that most, if not all, of the pending bills would violate the First Amendment's ban on govern- ment establishment of religion. "The whole idea of so-called student-initiated prayer is really an attempt to create a false impression,'' says Elliott Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a Washington-based civil-liberties group. Even when such prayers are called studentinitiated or voluntary, Mincberg says, they are, in effect, government-endorsed prayer. "The fact that it is said by a student,'' he asserts, "doesn't really make a difference.''
If Tennessee is any indication, opponents of prayer in the public schools may, in the end, have to make their case in the federal courts. A bill permitting studentinitiated prayer at noncompulsory events passed the Tennessee legislature last year with only one opposing vote in each house. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is currently preparing a legal challenge. "The attorney general opined two or three times that the bill was unconstitutional, and we lobbied against it,'' says Hedy Weinberg, the group's executive director. "We were frustrated with only one member of each chamber voting against it.''
Compaq Takes On Apple And IBM In K-12 Market
Compaq Computer Corp., the nation's third-largest computer manufacturer, has announced that it is entering the education market.
Industry analysts say the move will substantially raise the competitive stakes in a niche previously dominated by Apple Computer Inc. and IBM. Although Compaq, which posted record sales of $7.2 billion last year, will target both precollegiate and postsecondary education, it has developed a sales strategy specifically for the K-12 sector.
Alicia Goodwin, director of government and education marketing for the Houston-based company, says several recent developments have convinced Compaq officials that they cannot ignore the school market any longer. She notes, for example, that Apple's recent decision to discontinue its venerable Apple II machine-- which represents roughly half of the installed machines in K-12 classrooms--could open up an immense replacement market over time. Moreover, both Apple and IBM have experienced the turmoil of financial retrenchment and corporate reorganization in recent years.
"We think that Apple and IBM are a bit distracted,'' Goodwin says. "They are trying to fix some things outside of the education market that affect the way they deal with the education market.''
One of Compaq's strengths is in networking technologies, and that, according to Goodwin, could be an advantage in its dealings with schools. The company pro- jects that school demand for networked systems will grow by 40 percent between now and 1996, compared with 25 percent growth in other markets.
Compaq is already cultivating a network of dealers who are familiar with the school computer market. The company, working with Bank One Leasing Corp., has also developed an equipmentleasing program that will allow schools to obtain Compaq computers and update their equipment with smaller capital outlays.