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Tough On Truancy

A justice of the peace in Helena, Mont., has fined a mother and father $20 each for their daughter's chronic truancy and promised to jail the couple one day for each of her future unexcused absences. Wallace Jewell handed down the rulings in March against Leon and Kathy Long, whose daughter attends Helena Middle School. Before the sentencing, the girl had missed 63 days; more than one-third of the absences were unexcused. Since then, according to court records, the girl has not been truant.

A Cheater Exposed

A cheating scandal has forced Steinmetz High School in Chicago to relinquish its 1995 Illinois Academic Decathlon title. The school was stripped of the honor after students from last year's team reported that their coach, English teacher Gerald Plecki, had given them answers, which they then memorized. Plecki, who has resigned, admitted cheating last year but denied helping his students this year. The title was passed to Chicago's Whitney Young High School.

The GOP Agenda

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that a majority of Americans are pleased with the general direction of the Republican-led Congress--but disagree with GOP proposals relating to education and children. About 41 percent of those polled--up from 31 percent in January and 27 percent last October--said they approve of the actions of Congress in general. But 79 percent said they oppose efforts by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and other Republican lawmakers to eliminate the U.S. Education Department; 58 percent said they disagree with plans to replace the school-lunch program with a block grant; and 52 percent oppose abandoning the president's national service program.

Required Reading

Beginning in the fall, middle and elementary school children in poor-performing Dade County, Fla., schools will devote two hours each day to reading. The school board decided to require the two-hour reading block at 59 elementary and 12 middle schools where average scores on the Stanford Achievement Test were 25 or less. (The average nationwide is 50.) Middle schools will have to add an extra hour to the school day, but the switch will not affect the elementary day. "Our people aren't reading--that's one of the reasons for the two-hour block,'' says Phyllis Cohen, a district official. "This permits students to read on their own in order to develop the habit of reading for pleasure.''

Illegal Tender

U.S. Secret Service agents recently stopped by a Delaware high school to dissuade several students from pursuing careers as counterfeiters. The students, it appears, had persuaded a teacher at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del., to use a digital computer scanner to store the image of a $5 bill on a disk. They then began duplicating the image on a home computer. After seeing one of the counterfeit bills, a school official tipped off police, who called the Secret Service, which has jurisdiction over fake money. Two agents stopped by the school and rounded up five boys, who subsequently were suspended. Aside from the lawless nature of the students' work, the agents noted that the boys showed little flair for counterfeiting. "It was extremely poor quality,'' one said. "Had you seen this note, you would have known it was not real--unequivocally.''


Tina Gordon, who quit her teaching job with the Dover, N.J., public schools when the district refused to give her time off to run in the Boston Marathon on April 17 [See "Briefs,'' April], has taken a new job as a special education teacher in Hopatcong, N.J. Administrators in her new school district not only gave her their support, Gordon said, but also the day off to take part in the race.

Homeschoolers Seek Open-Door Policy

Parents who educate their children at home increasingly are trying to force open the doors of local public schools to gain access to services they cannot offer at home.
In recent months, they have created a stir in legislatures and courtrooms in several states, demanding that their children be given access to public school classes and other activities. In March, Gov. Phil Batt of Idaho signed into law a "dual-enrollment policy'' that requires public schools to accept students from home and private schools for a portion of the day. And in Massachusetts, three state judges since December have issued preliminary injunctions barring the state interscholastic athletic association from preventing homeschoolers from playing on public high school teams. But the news hasn't been all good for homeschooling families. In late March, for example, a federal magistrate ruled that students who are educated at home have no guaranteed right to participate in extracurricular activities offered by local public schools. The case had been filed by the family of 14-year-old Jeremy McNatt, who had not been allowed to play baseball in the Frazier, Pa., public schools. The boy had argued that the district action violated his civil rights.
"This is something that is cropping up in a bunch of different ways in a bunch of different states,'' says Scott Somerville, a staff lawyer for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va. "It's alive.''
At the center of the disputes is the issue of fairness. Advocates of an open-door policy believe that children should not be penalized because their parents choose to educate them at home. "Do we believe they are betraying something precious to the community and should be punished for it?'' Somerville asks. "Or do we believe these are decent, caring parents who aren't hurting anybody?''
Opponents argue, however, that such policies create a system of dual standards. In many districts, for example, public school students must follow academic and attendance rules to participate in sports. But there is no way to determine whether homeschool students have followed or met the same rules. To play interscholastic sports in the Frazier, Pa., school district, students must maintain a C- average and attend school regularly. "It's just not possible to treat [homeschoolers] the same,'' says district superintendent Frederick Smeigh. Homeschool students like Jeremy McNatt "have a choice,'' he says. "They can come to regular school or homeschool. We can't equalize it.''
The new Idaho law is one of the most liberal of its kind in the nation. It requires public schools to accommodate students who attend either private or home schools. They may attend classes, participate in extracurricular activities, or any combination of the two. That means a homeschooler could take a chemistry or computer course from the public school and the rest of his classes at home or at a private institution. The student could also play on the basketball team or join the French club.
Under the law, full-time public school students will be given preference for academic courses, but ability will be the criterion in extracurricular activities like sports. How school districts will be reimbursed by the state for costs of compliance is yet to be determined. And there are no estimates of how many students would be affected because there is no agency that tracks students who are schooled at home.
"It's going to be an administrative nightmare to begin with,'' says Mike Friend, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators.
But there are questions of far greater import that remain to be answered, Friend says. What happens, he asks, when a student transfers from one public school to another and finds the chemistry labs full? Would a homeschool student enrolled in one of the labs get booted out to accommodate the transfer student? Or what about students who have lost their academic eligibility to play sports? Could those students switch to homeschooling and keep playing?
Previous attempts to pass such a policy had been stymied in the Idaho legislature, but this year the measure passed easily. Observers attribute the change, in part, to a more conservative political climate. But another precipitating factor was a move by the Idaho High School Activities Association to bar homeschoolers from participating in extracurricular activities. Before the association had a chance to adopt the policy, the legislature passed the law.
Observers note that the majority of disputes over these issues stem from rules that exclude nonpublic students from public school activities, especially sports. This has certainly been the case in Massachusetts, where lawyer Robert Waldo has taken on the state interscholastic athletic association four times in the past four months on behalf of homeschooled students who were barred from athletics. In all four cases, the courts ruled that the students had been discriminated against and issued injunctions.
The issue has surfaced in Southern states, as well. In South Carolina, for example, Rep. Michael Fair has introduced legislation that would require districts to permit homeschoolers to take part in interscholastic sports.
"As taxpayers,'' Fair says, "we all should have access to the public schools.''

A Test Case

James Acton wanted to join his school's 7th grade football team. But there was one glitch. His rural Oregon district, the Vernonia public schools, required middle and high school athletes to consent to random drug testing, and James' parents wouldn't sign the form. So instead of playing football, James got an education about the federal court system. The Actons filed suit against the district, arguing that random drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches. In late March, with the Actons looking on, Thomas Christ of the American Civil Liberties Union argued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The district began the testing program in 1989 after school officials linked an increase in classroom disruption to what they believed was growing drug use among students. District lawyer Timothy Volpert told the justices, "The school district has established [that there is] a serious threat to its ability to educate its students.'' In court papers, the district defended singling out athletes with the argument that interscholastic sports is a voluntary activity and that students give up some expectation of privacy in order to participate. Christ told the justices that if testing athletes is upheld, it might not be long before there is "universal'' drug testing. "There should not be a different standard for students than adults,'' he said. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the Actons and struck down the testing program. The district appealed. James, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Vernonia High School, is pictured above on the steps of the Supreme Court with his father, Wayne, and his mother, Judy, left.

Parents' Rights

A Virginia-based organization that believes school officials and others sometimes act against the wishes of parents is pushing an amendment to state constitutions that would guarantee their rights.

The proposed amendment, drafted by Of The People, states that "the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed.'' It would give legislatures the power to enforce the measure.
The amendment's backers say it is needed to counter condom-distribution programs and curricula in public schools that they believe hinder parents' efforts to raise their children as they see fit. "When parents try to get involved in their public schools, they find that their rights are not being respected,'' says Greg Erken, the organization's executive director.

Supporters say the amendment would codify two important U.S. Supreme Court rulings dating from the 1920s that guarantee parents the right to direct their children's upbringing. The cases are Meyer vs. Nebraska, a 1923 decision that upheld the right of parents to raise their children free of unreasonable state interference, and Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, a 1925 ruling that overturned an Oregon law requiring parents to send their children to public school. In the latter decision, the court said the law "unreasonably interfere[d] with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.''

"The problem as we see it,'' Erken says, "is that although these cases have never been overturned, they have become kind of a dead letter among state judges and officials in the executive branches. This amendment will revitalize this parental-rights doctrine.''

Of The People's written material argues that the amendment would make public schools more accountable to parents "by giving them greater oversight of academic standards and by helping ensure that values taught at school don't conflict with values taught at home.'' In practical terms, that would mean parents would have the right, among other things, to bar their children from receiving condoms in schools, Erken explains. He says the amendment also would help derail the recent trend in family law that allows children to gain legal representation separate from their parents.

Of The People was founded early last year by Jeffrey Bell, a conservative author and parent who lives in Fairfax County, Va. So far, the group has found sponsors for its proposed amendment in 24 states, and the measure has been seriously debated or voted out of committee in half a dozen.

Armen Martin, an aide to Sen. Rob Hurtt, who introduced the amendment in California, acknowledges that it would not have much effect if adopted. "But,'' he says, "we are trying to make a statement that parents, and not government, should be responsible for raising children.''

Some critics argue that the measure is not needed and even potentially dangerous. Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a liberal civil-liberties group, believes the amendment could create confusion about the validity of laws such as those barring child abuse or requiring child vaccinations. "If what they are really saying is that parents' rights can't be infringed, that could have all sorts of consequences,'' Mincberg says. "Our view is that the amendment is either unnecessary or would seriously conflict with the current legal notion of parental rights and responsibilities.''

But Erken asserts that the initiative would not take issue with already established limits to parent rights, such as compulsory school attendance, mandatory vaccination policies, or laws prohibiting child labor or endangerment.

"Why is there such an innate distrust of parents that when we speak of parental rights, we immediately hear of things that put parents in such a poor light?'' he asks. "The vast majority of parents do a very good job raising their children.''

Vying For Vouchers

A federal court has ruled that the Milwaukee school voucher program, one of the first in the nation to give low-income students public money to attend private schools, cannot be expanded to religious schools without crossing the constitutional line between church and state.

Despite the ruling, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has continued to push a proposal he made in January to expand the state-financed Milwaukee program to religious schools and has even suggested implementing it statewide. He argues that Wisconsin can sidestep the church-state barrier by directing the aid to parents instead of schools. The federal judge's decision, Thompson says, "will not deter our efforts. If anything, it helps reaffirm that we are going in the right direction with a voucher system that gives tuition money directly to the parents, not the schools.''

Civil-liberties advocates maintain that the student vouchers Thompson has proposed are no different from direct payments. The governor, they point out, has suggested mailing tuition payments directly to participating religious schools at parents' request--a move Thompson says is necessary to prevent fraud.

"We are amazed by the lengths he is willing to go to to succeed in giving tax dollars to religious schools,'' says Mordecai Lee, vice chairman of the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education, an anti-voucher coalition that includes civil-liberties organizations and leaders from several religious groups. "We are fighting this tooth and nail.''

The Milwaukee choice program, begun in 1990, uses state money to send nearly 880 low-income children to 12 private schools in the city. The current law requires participating students to meet family-income guidelines and stipulates that the state will pay their tuition only at nonsectarian schools.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, lawyers for the Landmark Legal Foundation, an advocacy group based in Kansas City, Mo., argued that, by excluding religious schools from the program, the state was infringing on the religious freedom of parents. Once the state allowed public funds to be used for private school tuition, they argued, it could not bar sectarian schools from the choice plan without denying the plaintiffs--five low-income children and their parents--access to a government benefit based on their religious beliefs.

Judge John Reynolds disagreed. He cited a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that a New York state program that paid the tuition of low-income students attending religious schools had violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of government establishment of religion.

Occupational Hazard

Teachers beware: Ditto sheets, those old-fashioned, aromatic tools of the trade, may be hazardous to your health. That, at least, is the conclusion of a study by the American Federation of Teachers, which, in April, released a news advisory on the matter.

The AFT conducted its investigation of the purple-inked, machine-printed papers after receiving calls from teachers complaining of nausea and headaches when working with them. What the union found was alarming.

According to Darryl Alexander, director of workplace health and safety for the AFT, the fluid used in ditto machines often contains high levels of methanol, a volatile and potentially harmful alcohol that spreads quickly in the atmosphere. The methanol concentration in the fluids tested ranged from 30 percent to 99 percent. In some schools, Alexander says, the exposure levels may exceed workplace standards set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Exposure to high levels of methanol can lead to skin ailments, blurred vision, or even more serious problems, such as blindness, Alexander says. Teachers who regularly use ditto machines, he adds, may be at risk while making printouts.

The AFT recommends that ditto machines be placed in areas with proper ventilation and that teachers wait at least one day before handling materials printed on them. It also proposes that schools replace the machines with more sophisticated equipment.

Never-Ending Story

A New York state judge has added yet another chapter to the ongoing saga of the Kiryas Joel school district, created in 1989 to serve children with disabilities in a village of Orthodox Jews. In a March ruling, the judge upheld a 1994 state law that gave new life to the otherwise doomed district.

The law was the state legislature's response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June that struck down previous legislation establishing the public school district for Kiryas Joel, a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews about 50 miles northwest of New York City. The Supreme Court had said that the 1989 law creating a district specifically for the village was a form of "religious favoritism'' that violated the U.S. Constitution. [See "Briefs,'' September 1994.]

The legislature then went back to the drawing board, adopting a general law that allows municipalities to form school districts as long as they meet certain criteria for size and tax base. Few in New York state doubted that the law's main aim was to allow Kiryas Joel to keep a public education program for its disabled children. Virtually all the nondisabled children in the village attend private religious schools.

Official at the New York State School Boards Association decided to press the matter. They filed suit to overturn the law, which they called a "sham.''

But in his March 8 ruling, Justice Lawrence Kahn of the state supreme court in Albany, upheld the statute as religiously neutral. In contrast to the 1989 law, which conferred a "special benefit'' on the Hasidic village, the 1994 law "provides a religion-neutral mechanism for all qualifying municipalities,'' the judge said. Even if Kiryas Joel is the only village that now meets the criteria, he added, other municipalities may eventually qualify. Coincidentally, Kahn was the judge who struck down the law that created the district in 1989.

Abraham Weider, president of the Kiryas Joel school board, was delighted with the ruling. "We are glad it was the same judge, which should not leave any doubt as to the constitutionality of this law,'' he said.

Bill Pape of the school boards' association said the group is considering whether to appeal.


Tina Gordon, who quit her teaching job with the Dover, N.J., public schools when the district refused to give her time off to run in the Boston Marathon on April 17 [See "Briefs,'' April], has taken a new job as a special education teacher in Hopatcong, N.J. Administrators in her new school district not only gave her their support, Gordon said, but also the day off.

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