News in Brief

March 24, 2004 6 min read
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California State Board Backs Hands-On Science

Reversing an earlier position, the California state board of education has approved a set of guidelines for textbook publishers that would not limit hands-on science activities that teachers could use in the classroom.

Last month, a board advisory committee recommended guidelines that would have limited hands-on lessons for elementary school pupils from 20 percent to 25 percent of the science curriculum. (“State Budgets Put Fear Into Text Publishers,” Feb. 25, 2004.) That recommendation—which would have influenced the content of science textbooks—led to widespread criticism from state business leaders and higher education administrators, who argued against the cap.

The issue was even the subject of a session with the executive director of the state school board, representatives of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, business leaders, legislators, higher education officials, teachers, and officers of the California Science Teachers Association, said Christine Bertrand, the executive director of the CSTA.

During that meeting, the language of the proposed guidance for textbook publishers was changed to make the 20 percent to 25 percent proportion for hands-on lessons a minimum, not a cap, she said. On March 10, the 11-member state board, six of whom were appointed and one of whom was reappointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, voted unanimously to adopt the revised criteria.

—Michelle Galley

West Virginia Schools Chief Delays Retirement Till ’06

West Virginia schools Superintendent David Stewart will stay put until June 30, 2006, now that the state board of education has unanimously backed his request to delay retirement for two years.

In February, Mr. Stewart announced his plans to leave as of June 30 of this year, saying he believed that it was time for “a new leadership and a new vision.”

But he began reconsidering his decision over the past few weeks, partly at the urging of supporters.

“Since I made my announcement in February, I’ve received an overwhelming amount of support, encouraging me to reconsider my decision,” Mr. Stewart said in a statement March 10, the same day the board approved his request. “After careful consideration and discussions with my family, we decided that it was not yet time for me to leave.”

He’s been the state schools chief since March 2000.

—Lisa Goldstein

N.J. Court Rejects Full Aid For Pre-K in Abbott Schools

The New Jersey Department of Education is not required to pay all the costs of court-ordered preschool programs in the state’s poorest districts, a state appeals court has ruled.

In the Abbott v. Burke case, the state supreme court required the state to establish the preschool programs as part of a plan to improve financially strapped schools. In a March 11 ruling interpreting that decision, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of New Jersey’s appellate division held that the high court required the state to “ensure” that funding exists for the preschools, but said that meant only that the state must “assist” in providing the funds.

“We are satisfied that the court’s wording of this obligation ... falls significantly short of requiring exclusive state funding for preschool programs in the Abbott districts,” the appellate ruling said.

Four districts had sued the state last year, seeking to have New Jersey pay the full costs of the preschool programs that the districts operate under the Abbott decision. In separate rulings for each of the four districts, administrative-law judges awarded them a total of $6.8 million.

The appellate panel, though, in a 2-1 decision threw out the awards in the consolidated decision issued this month.

—David J. Hoff

Former Governors to Lead Higher Education Panel

A national commission has been launched to study state-level accountability efforts in higher education.

The association of State Higher Education Executive Officers, based in Denver, recently announced the formation of the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education.

Former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a Republican, and former U.S. Secretary of Education and South Carolina Gov. Richard W. Riley, a Democrat, will co-chair the panel, which includes legislative leaders, state higher education officials, and business representatives.

The panel is expected to study what has been learned about using accountability systems to improve student performance and preparation for college, among other issues. The first meeting of the commission is set for May 10 in Washington, and its final report is expected by the end of the year.

—Robert C. Johnston

Bill Seeks Charter Authority For California Universities

Charter school supporters in California are optimistic that the legislature will allow broader authority in awarding new charters.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Assembly and the Senate would add public higher education institutions to the list of entities allowed to grant charters. The plan follows a recommendation by the state legislative analyst’s office earlier this year.

Currently, prospective charter schools must turn to school districts to receive authorization to operate, said Gary L. Larson, the spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association. That policy has made it hard for many schools to receive charters, proponents of charter schools say, because some districts are opposed to or not interested in the public but largely independent schools.

If adopted, the measure would be the first significant change in the state’s charter school law since it was enacted in 1992, Mr. Larson said.

—Joetta L. Sack

Lesson Challenging Evolution Clears Ohio State School Board

A voluntary model lesson asking students to investigate evidence for and against the theory of human evolution received final approval from the Ohio state board of education this month.

In a 13-5 vote on March 10, the board adopted the optional “Critical Analysis of Evolution” lesson. Critics have said the lesson would improperly invite conversation in public schools about intelligent design, an explanation that attributes the origins of human life to a higher power.

Reacting to rumors that a lawsuit would be filed to block the lesson, state schools Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman told the Associated Press that information from the Ohio education department’s legal counsel and from the state attorney general’s office indicated the lesson would withstand a legal challenge. No such lawsuit had been filed as of last week, according to a state education agency spokesman.

—Michelle Galley

Illinois State Schools Chief Faces Questions in La. Audit

Illinois state education Superintendent Robert E. Schiller and the agency he heads are already under fire from Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich. Now, Mr. Schiller faces questions over his previous job as the district superintendent of schools in Shreveport, La.

A Louisiana state auditor’s investigative report in October of last year said Mr. Schiller had arranged the purchase of 20 acres for an elementary school in Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport, that may have benefited a local developer.

The report—which garnered headlines in Illinois only recently—accused Mr. Schiller of failing to notify the school board of a land appraisal that may have led the board to pay $130,000 too much for the property. It also concluded that the board overpaid Mr. Schiller nearly $30,000 for benefits when he left the job, and it urged the district to recover the money. District officials have disputed many of the findings.

Mr. Schiller, who oversaw the 45,000-student Louisiana district from 1999 to 2002, has publicly denied any wrongdoing.

Gov. Blagojevich wants to dissolve the state board of education, as the state’s education agency is called, and place it under his control. Lawmakers have been debating the governor’s plan.

—Alan Richard

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