News in Brief

March 17, 2004 6 min read
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Utah State Chief Plans to Step Down

The Utah state schools chief has announced that he will resign from his job for health reasons.

Steven O. Laing, 53, plans to leave his post as state superintendent of public instruction to have a double hip replacement in the next few months. He expects to spend significant time recovering.

Mr. Laing, who has been the state superintendent since December 1998, said in a statement that he plans to take a job with Utah State University in the continuing education department, beginning this coming fall.

The Utah state board of education announced it would immediately begin a search for a new superintendent. In the meantime, Patrick Ogden, the associate superintendent for data and business services, was named interim superintendent, starting April 1.

During his tenure as state chief, Mr. Laing has overseen the implementation of the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students and worked on implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He also oversaw the establishment of the first charter schools in the state, which now has 19 such schools, with 3,253 students.

—Michelle R. Davis

Iowa Hopes to Launch Achievement-Gap Project

The Hawkeye State is poised to take a strategic approach—starting with a pilot district—to closing the achievement gap that finds African-American students lagging behind their white classmates academically.

A task force convened by Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack last year examined the challenges in improving African-American student achievement in the 10,450-student Waterloo school district. The 27-member task force included teachers, school administrators, community members, and business leaders.

The panel, which released its report earlier this month, recommends paying incentives to highly skilled teachers and administrators to work at schools enrolling large numbers of low- performing students. The group also calls for recruiting more African-American teachers, along with a renewed commitment to cultural-competency training for current staff members.

Three Waterloo schools, enrolling about 800 black students, would participate in the pilot program starting in the fall. The Democratic governor set aside $550,000 for the $1.3 million program in his proposed fiscal 2005 budget. The district would have to pick up the remaining $750,000 tab.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Indiana State Board Pushes For Changes in Federal Law

The Indiana state board of education has joined a statewide call for changes in the school accountability measures in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

By a 6-5 vote on March 4, the board opted to sign a letter drafted by a coalition of education groups urging Indiana state lawmakers to press for the revisions. The group asks that the law be revised to jibe better with Indiana’s own methods for gauging school progress, which they say do more than federal rules to stress student improvement.

The communication also urges amendments to allow the progress of “cognitively impaired” students to be determined using special tests and guidelines. At the same time, it calls on the legislature to expand teacher training and early-learning opportunities for children, such as full-day kindergarten.

“While recognizing the financial constraints faced by the [legislature],” the letter says, “we are unable to separate NCLB goals and the effort required to achieve those goals.”

Policymakers in a number of other states in recent weeks have voiced concerns about the No Child Left Behind Act and what they see as insufficient funding to implement it. (“Debate Grows on True Costs of School Law,” Feb. 4, 2004.)

—Jeff Archer

Minn. Officials Find Glitch In Gauging Schools’ Progress

Minnesota education officials have announced that state testing procedures used to track “adequate yearly progress” by schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act have led to inflated school ratings.

Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke said last week that while a recent review found no problems in how the 2003 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments were scored, changes need to be made in how the scores are interpreted.

It turns out that the number of questions a student needed to answer correctly to make sufficient progress on last spring’s exams “was set prematurely,” before the state’s academic standards were made final, a letter from the state education department explained. As a result, the current results for reading in grades 3 and 5 appear to be inflated by about 6 percent, and the mathematics scores are inflated by about 3 percent, according to state data.

State officials are recalculating the grade 3 and 5 test results to get the correct baseline for measuring growth from 2003 to 2004.

“I want to emphasize that our tests and test questions are perfectly sound,” Ms. Yecke said in a statement.

—Robert C. Johnston

La. Districts Make Offer In School Facilities Lawsuit

A group of Louisiana districts suing the state school board for school construction aid has submitted a settlement offer that envisions eventual state spending of an additional $171 million a year.

Carey T. Jones, a lawyer representing the eight school systems involved in the lawsuit, said some of the schools are in such disrepair that “if these buildings were anything other than schools, they would be condemned.”

Two related lawsuits Mr. Jones filed in state court in Baton Rouge last December contend the state board of education must include facilities costs in its Minimum Foundation Program, the main source of state aid for schools.

“We contend that it’s an essential component of any minimum program,” he said.

The settlement total, which is based on $300 per student, would be phased in over four years. The lawsuit would not actually compel the state to spend the additional money. That’s up to the legislature. But it seeks to require the state board, when it proposes its annual formula plan to lawmakers, to factor in those costs. Currently, the formula is funded at about $2.5 billion.

Michael H. Rubin, a lawyer for the state board, said, “The board intends to vigorously defend its position, and believes the lawsuit has no merit.”

—Erik W. Robelen

Budget Problems May Alter Calif. Higher Ed. Admissions

Because of state budget constraints, the University of California and California State University systems will for the first time be able to reject some qualified applicants from getting into their campuses, school officials say.

The UC system, which has eight undergraduate campuses, is expected to turn away 3,200 students during the 2004-05 academic year, if the budget proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is adopted by the legislature.

The CSU system, which has 23 undergraduate schools, would have to cut enrollment by at least 3,000 students during the fall, and by an estimated 23,000 undergraduates and graduates during the fall, spring, and summer enrollment periods, under the proposed budget, CSU spokeswoman Colleen Bentley-Adler said. Previously, California applicants were guaranteed a spot on at least one of the campuses of UC or CSU, if they met the different academic requirements of those systems.

Officials from both systems say they are likely to redirect students to community colleges for their first two years, and then have them transfer to one of their four-year campuses as juniors.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed making the community college tuition free for students who agree to take that path. California faces an estimated $15 billion deficit out of a general fund of roughly $78 billion.

—Sean Cavanagh

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