News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

October 29, 2003 5 min read
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Ark. Governor Tempers Goals on Consolidation

Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has released a new proposal for complying with a state supreme court ruling last year that ordered the legislature to make wide-ranging changes in the state’s schools and to devise a more equitable school-aid system.

The “Leadership for Education Accountability Reform Now” plan, or LEARN, released this month, is similar to other proposals from the governor. But instead of seeking to consolidate districts with fewer than 1,500 students, Mr. Huckabee, under the plan, would focus on districts with fewer than 425 students. If those districts failed to meet state academic and teacher-salary goals by July 1 of next year, they would be dissolved and merged with one or more other districts.

The proposal also would set a statewide teacher-salary schedule, with starting pay of $29,000 and an average salary of $50,595.

Gov. Huckabee, a Republican, also wants to restructure the state department of education into distinct administrative bodies, which would include a bureau of general education and a bureau of higher education.

Consultants have estimated it could cost as much as $900 million to meet the court order handed down last November. (“Court Orders Arkansas to Fix K-12 Funding,” Dec. 4, 2002.) The high court gave the legislature until Jan. 1, 2004, to rework the school funding system. The governor has tentatively scheduled a special legislative session on the issue for Dec. 8.

—John Gehring

New California Association Wants to Add More Charters

Pledging to foster the establishment of 1,000 new charter schools in the Golden State over the next decade, the California Charter Schools Association made its official debut last week at a ceremony in Los Angeles.

With four offices around the state, the new organization is the successor to the Sacramento-based California Network of Educational Charters.

Formed following a vote last month in which 87 percent of the network’s members approved the transition, the association aims to take the state’s charter movement to “the next level” through stronger public-policy advocacy and member support.

“Charter schools offer the best path to the meaningful reform of public education,” said Caprice Young, the chief executive officer of the new association and a former member of the Los Angeles board of education.

Among the association’s goals is to create space for 500,000 additional charter school students over the next 10 years. California has about 470 charter schools, serving around 170,000 students, according to the association.

—Caroline Hendrie

Fla. Legislation Would Bolster Oversight of State Vouchers

Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne has proposed legislation that would tighten oversight of state voucher programs that provide public support for private school tuition.

Mr. Horne announced his plan on Oct. 16, after two scandals had rocked Florida’s distinctive statewide voucher programs. First, two men were accused last summer of using a religious school as a front to raise money for terrorist groups. Then, an organization that sponsored tuition scholarships for students from low-income families was accused of diverting that money from a school, leading to a criminal investigation. (“Fla. Vouchers Move Toward Tighter Rules,” Sept. 17, 2003.)

The commissioner’s plan would require more oversight of the scholarship-funding organizations that dole out Florida’s most popular school voucher program: $3,500 scholarships, supported through corporate tax credits, for students whose families meet federal poverty standards.

Mr. Horne wants regular financial audits of the scholarship groups and quarterly financial reports to be filed with the state. He would also ban the scholarship groups from operating schools themselves.

State legislators and private school groups may also propose legislation before lawmakers return to Tallahassee in January for their regular session.

Some lawmakers have suggested they would try to force other provisions on private schools that accept state-supported vouchers, including a plan to require such schools to administer state tests and make the results available to the public.

—Alan Richard

Illinois Governor Backing Student Community Service

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois says his administration is considering seeking a requirement that all public high school students perform community service in order to graduate.

The first-year governor, a Democrat, raised the possibility earlier this month, a spokeswoman for his office said.

In the meantime, Gov. Blagojevich said that his administration plans to introduce legislation to make recipients of the Illinois Merit Recognition Scholarship—a $1,000 college scholarship awarded to students based partly on their high class ranks—complete a minimum of 50 hours of community service to be eligible to receive the awards.

Chicago’s public schools already require all students to complete 40 hours of community service to graduate, Mr. Blagojevich pointed out in a statement. He also made note of Maryland’s community-service graduation requirement. (“Md. Service Learning: Classroom Link Weak?,” Oct. 15, 2003.)

“We’ll study how the program has worked in other places,” the governor said of a larger, statewide mandate. “But I must admit, the idea is compelling.”

—Sean Cavanagh

Florida Goes On the Attack To Keep Citizens in Shape

State officials in Florida want to fight the flab in their state.

Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed an obesity task force that will make recommendations to the legislature for ways the state can help its citizens stay physically fit.

The state estimates that almost one in four Florida high school students is overweight or at risk of obesity. One in 10 middle school students may be overweight.

Some of the task force’s recommendations may affect schools. State data show that fewer than half of Florida’s high school students attend physical education classes during an average week, while two of three high school students watch two or more hours of TV a day, an indication that many young people don’t exercise regularly.

State Commissioner of Education Jim Horne attended the announcement and pledged to work for healthier meals and other ways schools can help more young people stay fit.

—Alan Richard


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