Current Events: In Brief

January 01, 1994 17 min read

Californians Say No To Vouchers

In a stinging setback for advocates of private school choice, California voters in November rejected the nation’s most ambitious school voucher initiative yet by a seven-to-three margin. Proposition 174 would have given parents a tax-funded voucher-- worth about $2,500 per child in 1994-95--to spend at any participating public, private, or parochial school.

The overwhelming defeat marked the third straight loss for voucher proponents at the polls. Voucher referendums were defeated in Colorado in 1992 and in Oregon in 1990, both by two-toone margins. Many national education groups seized on the overwhelming rejection of the California initiative as a referendum on the future of private school choice nationwide.

“We believe the size of the ‘no’ vote reflects an abiding faith in the ideals and the purposes of public education,’' said Del Weber, president of the California Teachers Association, “and we are encouraged by that expression of support for free and universal public schooling.’' The CTA, by far the most formidable opponent of the measure, contributed at least $10 million of the approximately $16 million spent on the anti-voucher campaign.

Still, the national fight over vouchers is far from finished. The same day that Proposition 174 went down, voters in New Jersey and Virginia elected Republican gubernatorial candidates who have backed the school voucher concept. And backers of the California initiative have already pledged to repackage it for the 1994 or 1996 ballot. Voucher bills that include private schools are also expected to surface in at least a dozen states this year. [See “Onward To Battle,’' this page.]

Proponents of the California initiative blamed their defeat almost entirely on funding. The “Yes on 174'’ campaign raised less than $3 million. But others attributed the defeat to a combination of factors, including the initiative’s upfront added cost of more than $1 billion to provide vouchers for students already enrolled in private schools; the opposition of a Republican governor and prominent business leaders; and the widespread fear that the measure would raise state taxes and decimate public school finances. In addition, polls showed that voters were wary of providing public funding for private schools with minimal public accountability.

“These wide-open voucher programs are probably too radical a transformation at this point,’' said John Witte, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But, he added, “I don’t think the California thing should be read in too serious a manner. You had a situation of gross fiscal uncertainty in a place where they’re hurting terribly for money, and so it didn’t get passed.’'

Special Education Ruling A Blow To Districts

In a defeat for school districts and states, the Supreme Court in November made it easier for parents of children with disabilities to win reimbursement for private school tuition when public schools fail to provide an appropriate education. The high court ruled unanimously that parents in such situations need not worry about whether their choice of private school is approved by state authorities or meets the standards of federal special education law.

The court rejected arguments from public education and government groups that it use the case--Florence County School District 4 vs. Carter--to curb the growing number of “private placements’’ school districts must pay for. Such cases arise when parents not satisfied with the education plans devised for their children by public schools put them in private institutions and later sue for reimbursement of tuition and other expenses.

Writing for the court, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said school authorities are able to avoid the cost of private placements by complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law requires districts to provide disabled children with a “free, appropriate public education in a public setting, or place the child in an appropriate private setting of the state’s choice.’'

“This is IDEA’s mandate,’' O’Connor wrote, “and school officials who conform to it need not worry about reimbursement claims.’'

The question before the court in Florence County vs. Carter was a narrow but significant issue left open by a 1985 case. In the earlier case, the court first allowed federal judges to order reimbursement for parents who “unilaterally’’ place their disabled children in private schools after disputes with public school officials over an appropriate education plan. In that case, the court held that reimbursement was proper if the district failed to provide an appropriate education plan while the private school chosen by parents did provide such a plan.

In Florence County, the issue was whether reimbursement is proper when the private school chosen by parents does not meet state educational standards or does not follow the special education guidelines in IDEA. Public education groups and several states argued that the law’s purpose would be undermined if reimbursements were not limited to schools that met state special education standards.

Justice O’Connor, however, wrote that the school officials’ “emphasis on state standards is somewhat ironic.’' It “hardly seems consistent’’ with the goals of IDEA, she contended, “to forbid parents from educating their child at a school that provides an appropriate education simply because that school lacks the stamp of approval of the same public school system that failed to meet the child’s needs in the first place.’'

The action by the Supreme Court affirmed a lower-court ruling in favor of Shannon Carter, now a 24-year-old college student in Timmonsville, S.C. While a 9th grade student in Florence County in 1985, Carter was diagnosed with a learning disability that included dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. At first, school officials wanted to place her in a “resource room’’ with retarded and emotionally disturbed students but eventually made other arrangements.

Unhappy with their dealings with district officials, the Carters placed their daughter at a school that specialized in learning disabilities but did not attempt to meet all federal and state special education guidelines. The Carters sued the district for reimbursement of the nearly $36,000 in tuition and expenses for their daughter’s three years at the school. The family won its case in both the federal district and appeals courts. The district appealed to the Supreme Court.

The reaction of public school groups to the decision was in keeping with their arguments before the court--that private placements would grow and become more financially onerous if parents did not have to worry about choosing a state-approved school. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the ruling gives special education parents “a blank check drawn on school districts.’'

An Unusual Invitation

To most people, it would hardly seem remarkable: the U.S. Department of Education bringing together a group of high-profile teachers to talk about school reform. But, in fact, when the department brought more than 100 teachers to Washington, D.C., in November to do just that, it was, many said, an unprecedented event, marking the first time that an administration has acknowledged through action that teachers are key players in reform.

“Nothing will really happen unless we include teachers, both public and private school teachers, in the process of change,’' Secretary of Education Richard Riley said in his welcoming remarks. “If there is any one message I can convey to you today, it is this: We don’t intend to leave you out of the process of reform. This forum was created by teachers for teachers to make sure that those of us who are not teachers keep our feet on the ground when we talk about school reform.’'

The department invited two public school teachers from each state--many of them current or former state teachers of the year--to the two-day event, billed as the “Goals 2000 Teacher Forum.’' Also included were teachers from the nation’s private schools, territories, possessions, and Defense Department schools.

In part, the conference was held to explain--and promote-- the Clinton administration’s “Goals 2000'’ education reform plan. In October, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the plan, which grew out of an education agenda pursued by the Bush administration after a 1989 summit of governors. A revised version is awaiting Senate action.

Forum participant Ellen Meyers, a spokeswoman for IMPACT II--The Teachers Network, a grass-roots organization, recalls watching coverage of the education summit on the evening news. The anchorman, she remembers, pointed out that no teachers had been invited to participate. “That was a very powerful message,’' Meyers says. The forum, she adds, “is a long overdue first step’’ toward rectifying that mistake.

English Teachers Reject Grading

The National Council of Teachers of English joined the burgeoning movement away from traditional student assessment in November when its members approved a resolution calling on teachers to refrain as much as possible from using grades to evaluate students’ writing.

The resolution, which was passed unopposed by the 5,500 teachers attending the council’s annual meeting, mirrors growing interest nationwide in alternative ways to measure student performance. A number of schools, for example, have abandoned traditional grades in favor of report cards that describe students’ strengths and weaknesses in particular areas. Teachers could use narrative evaluations, written comments, or conferences to give students feedback on their writing, the authors of the NCTE resolution suggest.

“Grading serves no educational purpose,’' says Marilyn Cooper, an associate professor of English at Michigan Technological University and a sponsor of the resolution on writing. “Students have to learn to take responsibility for deciding what they want to do with their own writing, and the whole relationship is undermined if in the end you say, ‘B.’ A teacher cannot be a coach and an evaluator at the same time.’'

Cooper acknowledges, however, that, for most teachers, these methods would be timeconsuming and difficult to implement. High school educators, in particular, are often required to produce grades so that students can meet graduation or collegeentrance requirements. “Most writing teachers, when they hear about this, say, ‘Thank God, but isn’t it a little idealistic?’ '' Coop- er says. To assist those teachers, she notes, the resolution calls for a task force to investigate alternative evaluation methods.

Private Company Hired To Run School District

The Minneapolis school board has tapped a private, for-profit consulting firm to take over the duties of superintendent of its 44,000-student district.

Although other private companies have managed selected schools or run a district on a temporary basis [See “Bullish On Schools,’' April 1993], the board’s arrangement with Public Strategies Group Inc. appears to be the first of its kind.

The firm, which is headed by Peter Hutchinson and Babak Armajani, both former state finance officials, has consulted with several public institutions, including the Minneapolis city government and zoo. It was hired last February to assist the district in financial planning. At that time, the board suspended Superintendent Robert Ferrara after the district was sharply criticized for its handling of the budget.

Ann Kaari, president of the school board, which voted 6-0, with one abstention, to hire the firm to run the district, said the board members would not have considered such a nontraditional candidate for the job “if we didn’t know their track record.’'

Under the new arrangement, Hutchinson will act as superintendent, leading a management team of company employees, district officials, and possibly other outside consultants.

Armajani, Public Strategies’ chief executive officer, said the firm hopes to enter into a contract that links its pay to performance. If the firm does not meet the stated objectives in the agreement--such as improving student achievement or reducing staff turnover--it will not be paid, he said. Armajani estimated that the company could take in nearly half a million dollars in the first year of the contract, which would account for the superintendent’s $100,000 salary, as well as the pay of other central-office administrators whose duties the company assumes.

Because Hutchinson does not have credentials as a school administrator, the board will have to request a state waiver before he can step into the superintendent’s post. State officials have indicated that the waiver request will be granted, but no action on the matter had been taken by press time.

Although some educators criticized the decision to hire PSG because of its lack of school experience, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers supported the move. "[Hutchinson] brings clear experience with the principles of quality management, which means that employees are a valued part of the institution,’' said Louise Sundin, president of the 4,000-member teachers’ union.

Said Armajani: “We see ourselves coming in to make fundamental changes in the way the system works and then bringing in skilled professionals to take over, eventually working ourselves out of a job.’'

Study Challenges Effectiveness Of Chapter 1

Preliminary data from a groundbreaking study of Chapter 1 indicate that the federal compensatory-education program has had little success in improving the achievement of the educationally deprived children it is intended to serve.

Data from two testing cycles, collected for the “Prospects’’ longitudinal study, show no decrease in the performance gap between Chapter 1 participants and their more advantaged peers. They also show no significant difference in achievement between Chapter 1 students and similar students who did not participate in the program.

As the first major longitudinal study of Chapter 1 since it was created in 1965, the five-year effort, which is being conducted by Abt Associates Inc. of Bethesda, Md., is expected to have a strong influence on the shape of the program. A final report is not due until 1997, but federal lawmakers asked for an interim report in time for this year’s rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the $6.3 billion Chapter 1 program is the cornerstone.

The 396-page interim report, which was transmitted to Congress in July but only recently released to the public, focuses on the characteristics of students who receive Chapter 1 services and their schools. The study surveyed the achievement of more than 28,000 1st, 3rd, and 7th graders in the spring of 1991 and tested them again in the spring of 1992. The researchers plan to track the students through the course of the study.

The best preliminary results posted were those of Chapter 1 students tested in reading in the 7th and 8th grades; they showed a growth of 1.9 “normal curve equivalents’’ between 1991 and 1992. The normal-curve-equivalents scale is designed to show students’ progress relative to other students. A student whose NCE score does not change has learned during the year but has not gained any ground on his or her peers.

The reading scores of Chapter 1 students tested in the 3rd and 4th grades dropped from 35.8 to 34.4 during the period. By comparison, the NCE scores of students participating in other compensatory programs rose from 37.5 to 38.6, while the scores of students not participating in any such programs climbed slightly, from 57.3 to 57.5.

In mathematics, the test scores of almost all the groups declined between 1991 and 1992.

The preliminary results indicate, the report states, that “there is little or no evidence to suggest any differential gain in achievement between students receiving compensatory services and those not receiving such support.’'

State Defends Controversial Teaching Method

California education officials have dispatched a new publication to more than 8,000 schools in an effort to defend and clarify the state’s literature-based approach to teaching reading.

In 1987, the state adopted a controversial language arts framework that called for a major shift from traditional, phonicsbased teaching to newer strategies emphasizing the use of literature. The new approach came under fresh attack this past fall when data released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that the state’s 4th graders scored near the bottom on 1992 reading tests.

State officials said the low reading scores were largely due to demographics; California has a high proportion of inner-city and nonEnglish-speaking students. The officials also pointed out that, even after six years, schools have far to go in implementing the framework--in part, they say, because educators have misinterpreted it. “There has been this idea out that the framework discouraged teaching phonics, and that just isn’t so,’' says Kathleen Cooper, a consultant to the state education agency.

The new publication, which has been in the works for months, suggests that educators seek a balance between the two approaches and offers guidance for dealing with some of the issues arising from implementation of the newer methods. It does not suggest that the state plans to abandon its framework. Says Cooper, “The philosophy and pedagogy is still sound.’' Failure To Control Students May Cost Teachers Their Jobs The Cincinnati public school system is giving new meaning to the term “discipline problem.’'

Under the terms of a new settlement in the district’s school desegregation case, teachers who fail to control student behavior in the classroom could themselves be subject to disciplinary action.

In an attempt to address the disproportionate representation of African-American students among those the schools suspend or expel, the out-of-court settlement unanimously approved by the school board in October calls for the district to reward teachers who manage students well with promotions, bonuses, and other honors and to dismiss those who do so poorly and do not improve. Although the courts have repeatedly been asked to address perceived bias in school discipline, the Cincinnati agreement appears to be the first settlement to call for data to be collected on individual classrooms so that teachers can be held accountable for how well they manage students.

Under the policy, the district will require principals to maintain records of each discipline referral, including the name, race, age, gender, and grade of the student and the name and race of the person making the referral. Although a large volume of discipline referrals alone would not be viewed as cause to punish a teacher, it could trigger a closer examination of the teacher’s behavior-management skills.

“If you have a positive impact, you will be rewarded,’' says William Taylor, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. “If you have a negative impact, maybe you should be taking on something else outside the school system.’'

The case, which the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed 19 years ago on behalf of a group of district students, was largely settled once before, in 1984. By 1991, U.S. District Judge Walter Rice had released the school system from court supervision in most areas, but he retained oversight to address racial disparities in discipline, staff racial imbalance, and the poor performances of eight schools.

If the new agreement receives Judge Rice’s final approval following a hearing this month, it will essentially put an end to the case.

But the proposed discipline policy may require changes in the district’s contract with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, and union approval appears far from certain. Thomas Mooney, president of the 4,000-member CFT, says problems with discipline are “much more complex than the assumptions that underlie this agreement.’'

Mooney argues, for example, that it is unfair to hold teachers responsible for the behavior students bring into the classroom. “Schools operate on middle-class norms of behavior, and, frankly, we get a lot of students, black and white, who don’t know anything about those norms,’' he says. “Our worst fear is that teachers and principals alike will read this settlement as a retreat from maintaining good standards of behavior. That is not going to be good for education. It is not what parents, in general, want, and it is not what taxpayers want.’'

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Current Events: In Brief