News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

July 09, 2003 6 min read
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Court Backs Wash. Union In Political-Action Case

A Washington state appeals court has struck down part of a campaign-finance law that has given the state’s largest teachers’ union numerous legal headaches in recent years.

At issue was the use of fees the Washington Education Association charges to nonunion education employees. Federal case law allows unions to collect money from nonmembers to pay for collective bargaining. But such “agency-fee payers” can seek refunds for the portion of their fees spent on political action.

Washington state’s 1992 campaign-finance law required unions to get permission from workers each year before deducting money from their paychecks to pay for political activity. In 2000, the state attorney general sued the WEA, arguing it had broken the law by mixing money from agency- fee payers with funds for political spending.

But on June 25, a state appeals court in Tacoma ruled 2-1 that the state rule on agency-fee payers violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The judges said unions need only give nonmembers the option of not contributing to politics. To instead force labor groups to assume all nonmembers object to paying for political activity “would unduly require a union to protect nonmembers who disagree with a union’s political expenditures but are unwilling to voice their objections,” the judges added.

Last month’s ruling reversed a lower court’s decision. State Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire had yet to decide last week whether to appeal.

—Jeff Archer

Cleveland Voucher Schools Get More State-Paid Aid

Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio has approved a budget provision that raises the amount of money that private schools can collect from state vouchers and from parents through the Cleveland voucher program.

Ohio law previously permitted private schools in what is officially called the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program to collect a state-funded voucher of up to $2,250 per child, plus an additional $250 from parents. Those amounts had not changed since the state-enacted program was implemented in the 1996-97 school year. (“Cleveland Voucher Aid No Panacea for Hard-Pressed Catholic Schools,” June 18, 2003.)

The state budget for fiscal 2004, which the Republican governor signed on June 26, permits religious and other private schools to collect a per-child maximum of $2,700 in state voucher aid and an additional $300 from parents whose income is $36,800 or less for a family of four. The law also permits schools to collect the full difference between the voucher amount and tuition from parents whose income is higher than $36,800 for a family of four, or more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Marianne E. White, a legislative aide for Sen. Robert A. Gardner, the Republican chairman of the Ohio Senate’s education committee, said that the provision raising the voucher amount was not controversial.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the voucher program in June of last year.

—Mary Ann Zehr

After Series of Mishaps, Ga. Testing Director Fired

David J. Harmon, who served as the testing director for the Georgia Department of Education under former state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, has been fired by the state board of education.

Current Superintendent Kathy Cox, who recommended that he be removed, offered no statement about why she wanted to replace Mr. Harmon. During his tenure, however, a number of problems occurred with the state’s standardized-testing system that forced results to be thrown out or delayed. (“Ga. Suspends Testing Plans in Key Grades,” April 16, 2003.)

Mike Harmon, who is no relation to the fired testing director and has been the program manager for test administration in the state education department, will hold the position on an interim basis. Nick Smith, a spokesman for the department, said he didn’t know who would be permanently appointed to the job, or when that decision would be made.

—Linda Jacobson

Wash. High Court Upholds Using Race in Assigning Pupils

In an 8-1 ruling, the Washington State Supreme Court has upheld a Seattle school district policy that calls for using race as one of many tiebreakers in making student assignments to schools. The policy, which was adopted as a way to maintain schools’ racial balance, faces further federal court scrutiny, however.

The June 26 ruling by Washington state’s highest court came in a case began in July 2000, when a group of parents sued the Seattle district. The plaintiffs argued that the district’s policy violated the U.S. Constitution as well as a 1998 voter-approved state ban on racial preferences in public employment, contracting, and school admissions.

After ruling against the policy in April of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit withdrew that decision three months later, saying the state supreme court was better qualified to consider whether the policy passed muster under state law. With the state issue resolved, the case returns to the federal appeals court for consideration of the federal constitutional questions.

The state court decision will not affect fall assignments because the policy has been suspended pending a final court outcome.

—Robert C. Johnston

Gov. Bush Signs Measure Calling for FCAT Alternatives

Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has signed into law a measure that will allow some students who failed the state’s mandatory high school graduation test to get their diplomas by other means.

The measure, signed by the Republican governor on June 20, requires the state board of education to approve alternative tests and test scores for students who failed to earn passing marks on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, which was required for graduation for the first time this year. Students who failed the FCAT, but did well enough on those other exams, such as the ACT or the SAT, would get diplomas.

More than 12,000 seniors failed the FCAT and were not allowed to graduate this spring. About 400 of those students are expected to get their diplomas thanks to the new law, which sought to find alternatives for high school students who are learning to speak English.

—Robert C. Johnston

Texas Education Commissioner To Leave Post at End of Month

With little fanfare or explanation, Felipe Alanis has announced plans to resign from his post as Texas commissioner of education at the end of July.

Mr. Alanis, 55, was appointed to the job by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in March of last year. He did not give a reason for his departure or announce his plans for his future.

“He said it felt like it was time to go,” said Suzanne Middlebrook, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

During Mr. Alanis’ tenure, Texas adopted and began administering a new standardized test called the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Robert Scott, the senior public education adviser to Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has been named the chief deputy commissioner of education, Ms. Middlebrook said. That temporary position will expire once a new commissioner is appointed, she said.

—Michelle Galley

New Jersey Court Approves Changes in Abbott Schools

The New Jersey Supreme Court has approved an agreement that allows some schools in the state’s 30 poorest districts to modify their whole-school reform programs.

The June 24 order adopts a settlement reached after mediation between the state and lawyers for the districts as part of the Abbott v. Burke school funding case, which has unfolded in stages since 1981.

In March, the state filed a motion to allow elementary schools in Abbott districts to modify their court-ordered programs of schoolwide reform. Lawyers for the districts objected, contending such programs had helped raise achievement. The state contended that not all schools had improved sufficiently, and that schools needed more flexibility. The court ordered the parties into mediation.

Under the resulting agreement, the 1998 mandate for whole-school reform remains, but the accord sets up a system that allows lower- performing schools to adopt alternatives after consultation with a state- appointed team. High-performing schools may modify their programs or choose new ones after consultation with district leaders.

—Catherine Gewertz


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