In Brief

April 01, 1991 6 min read

In January, the board voted unanimously to begin a series of hearings and debates designed to develop a legal charter that, if adopted this spring, would enable private schools to join the public school system as early as next fall. The intent of the charter would be to bring students and state aid back into the public schools, to help decentralize the system, and to offer public school students greater educational choice.

The proposal is still very much in its conceptual stage, and most observers agree that numerous legal, political, and labor-related questions need to be addressed before the first private school can be chartered as public.

From the board’s perspective, the district is losing about $4,000 in state aid each year for every Detroit child who attends a private school. The board estimates that the district could gain some $60 million in state aid if it can absorb schools that currently operate on private money.

Noting that parental dissatisfaction with public education is the reason most private schools in the city exist, John Elliott, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, says he wonders “What makes anybody think a private school wants to join the Detroit public schools?’'

Board members who sponsored the measure, however, are confident that Detroit can become the first district in the nation to have private schools join the public system.

Bilingual Education

Proponents of the various approaches to bilingual education have been warring for years over whose method best serves students with limited English skills. Many had hoped a long-awaited federal study on the topic might turn up new evidence that would ease the squabbling. No such luck. The study’s conclusion: Each of the three most common methods works effectively.

Released in February, the study followed 2,000 Spanish-speaking elementary students through model bilingual programs of three types: some that immerse children in English, some that shift to mostly English over four years, and some that ease the students more slowly into English over six years.

Researchers found that Spanish-speaking children in all three programs kept pace academically with the general student population and outpaced other at-risk students. Moreover, they found, children who received significant amounts of instruction in their native language were not impeded from learning English. And children who went through structured immersion programs with little native-language instruction appeared to have learned mathematics and reading as well as many who had received significant amounts of nativelanguage instruction in the short-term programs.

The study results seem to affirm the U.S. Education Department’s current stance that a variety of programs can be effective and that the methodology should be chosen at the local level. “Based on this study,’' said acting U.S. Secretary of Education Ted Sanders, “we can conclude that bilingual education benefits students, and school administrators can choose the method best suited to their students, confident that, if wellimplemented, it will reap positive results.’'

But advocates of both intensive English instruction and native-language maintenance were quick to assert that the study had serious shortcomings in its methodology and scope. They said it had examined too few sites and had failed to consider many areas that would have affirmed their respective views.

The Other ‘Theory’

A tiny town in Illinois has joined the national fray over creationism and its place in the public school curriculum. In February, the school board of the 2,900-student Morton Community Unit School District 709 adopted a policy requiring that all biology students in the system be told that there are alternative explanations for the origins of life.

“If evolution is brought up, then the teacher will inform the students that there is another theory called creationism,’' says Norman Durflinger, the district’s superintendent. He says information about creationism--which holds that biblical descriptions of the creation of the Earth and humanity are literally true--will be approved by a curriculum-review board and made available to students in the library of the district’s only high school.

The new policy was adopted after a school board member, Jim Widerkind, argued earlier this month that three evolutionbased high school biology textbooks adopted by the district slighted the religious views of the majority in the community.

No Religious Raiment

The Philadelphia school district has issued a memorandum warning teachers that they face suspension if they wear religious garb in the classroom. The memo, which states that teachers should avoid “any garment, headdress, or accessory that is identifiable as religious in nature,’' follows a ruling by a federal appeals court upholding a Pennsylvania law that bars the wearing of religious garb in the classroom.

The ruling upheld the firing of a teacher in the Philadelphia district who insisted on wearing a head scarf and other garments in accordance with her Moslem religious beliefs.

Reversing A Trend

The Reagan administration failed in its goal to abolish the U.S. Education Department but succeeded in cutting its size, reducing its staff level from a high of 6,883 in fiscal year 1981 to 4,413 in fiscal 1987.

Critics charged that personnel were being removed from grant programs the administration disliked, and that the office for civil rights in particular was being pared down into ineffectiveness.

The Bush administration, however, has quietly reversed that trend. Each of its three budgets has requested funds for additional employees at the department. The staff level rose to 4,596 in fiscal 1990 and 4,735 in 1991, and the 1992 proposal includes funds for 192 new jobs.

Teachers And The Legislature

For three years, New Mexico’s attorney general has been fighting to prevent public school teachers from serving in the state legislature. His argument: Teachers are employees of the state and thus ineligible to be lawmakers.

The state courts, however, have consistently ruled otherwise. And, following a recent appellate court ruling in favor of teacher-legislators, the attorney general said he would abandon the effort.

In Oklahoma, meanwhile, a Republican state senator has suggested linking the salary of lawmakers to that of teachers. A constitutional amendment proposed by Senator Don Rubottom would set the pay of members of the legislature at the prevailing statewide average for teachers--currently $26,000, compared with the $32,000 now earned by lawmakers.

Youth-Service Institute

A coalition of business, education, government, and human-service leaders has launched what is believed to be the nation’s first institute designed specifically to train teachers to organize youth-service projects.

The Pennsylvania Institute for Youth Service, located at a Philadelphia high school, will help superintendents, principals, and teachers in the state’s 501 school districts begin, strengthen, and expand school-based service projects for students. It will provide workshop training, inservice sessions in schools, extension courses through universities, and assistance in curriculum development.

One business leader associated with the project says it is designed “to give teachers and school administrators alike the practical tools, technical assistance, and professional support to make community service a daily reality in the lives of Pennsylvania students.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as In Brief