News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

November 19, 2003 5 min read
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Texas, Foundation Aim To Curb Dropout Rate

Texas is partnering with private foundations in a $130 million effort aimed at reducing high school dropout rates and increasing the number of students who reach college.

The state will contribute more than $65 million to the project, which has the support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. State grants of between $15,000 and $600,000 each will go to 140 school districts, who in turn will target the money to low-performing schools. The money will be released in two installments, in February and September of next year.

Acting Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said the state funding would be targeted to schools using dropout-prevention strategies, such as increasing the effectiveness of high school counseling. In recent years, some education observers have criticized Texas for publishing what they say are artificially low dropout rates.

Several other contributors will collectively match the state’s financial commitment. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will donate $35 million to the project. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation will offer $20 million, while the Communities Foundation of Texas will add $7 million, and other foundations will chip in $2.5 million.

The foundation money will be directed to the redesign of existing high schools and the creation of new ones, including schools that focus on mathematics, science, and technology. Aid from the foundations will also be channeled to charter schools that are effective at preventing dropouts and to “early college” high schools. The foundation grants will be distributed from 2004 to 2008, the Gates philanthropy said in a statement.

—Sean Cavanagh

Massachusetts Auditor To Review Charter Finances

An analysis from a public school advocacy group that contends charter schools have millions of dollars in reserves while many regular public schools are languishing financially has spurred the Massachusetts state auditor to review the finances of charter schools.

Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston-based coalition of activists, reviewed the 2003 annual reports filed by charter schools and concluded that the independently run public schools have some $37 million in reserves during a time when regular schools have been forced to slash programs and lay off teachers.

“We were stunned by the size of the reserves, considering the difficulty public schools are experiencing,” said Paul Dunphy, a policy analyst with Citizens for Public Schools, who wants the legislature to review charter school funding to ensure such schools are not receiving a disproportionate amount of money.

“This is a nonstory,” countered Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association. “This is just another attempt ... to try and sabotage the charter schools movement.”

—John Gehring

Connecticut Board Picks Veteran Official as State Chief

A veteran state education official who has worked behind the scenes to shape the way Connecticut students are taught has been named the state’s new schools chief.

Betty J. Sternberg won the top job at the Connecticut Department of Education on Nov. 5, when the state board of education appointed her by a 6-3 vote. Her selection as state commissioner of education followed a six-month search launched after Theodore S. Sergi announced plans to step down from the post, which he had held for nearly a decade.

An official with the department since 1980, Ms. Sternberg, 53, helped craft many of the policies called for in a 1986 state law that raised the pay and professional standards of Connecticut’s teachers. She also directed the development of the state’s student assessments and served as the agency’s point person on efforts to improve reading instruction.

Ms. Sternberg, who has held the job of associate commissioner for teaching and learning for the past 11 years, comes to the chief’s job at a time of shifting challenges for the state agency.

Before retiring, Mr. Sergi helped broker a deal to settle a long-running school desegregation case known as Sheff v. O’Neill. A group of 12 cities and towns also recently dropped another lawsuit, Johnson v. Rowland, in which they had argued that the state wasn’t fulfilling its school finance obligations.

One of Ms. Sternberg’s first tasks will be to bring state education policies in line with the federal No Child Left Behind Act during a time of reduced resources. Through early retirements and layoffs, her department lost 12 percent of its staff this year, including many of the agency’s top officials.

—Jeff Archer

Ohio School Tax Issues Defeated at High Rate

In 2000, most Ohio school districts were able to count on their communities’ support to pass school tax issues.

This month, faced with an uncertain national economy, Buckeye State voters defeated more than half the school tax issues put before them.

The 48 percent statewide passage rate on 221 ballot issues in 203 school districts is the lowest mark on such tax issues for a November election in a decade. Three years ago, the approval rate was 75 percent. This year’s results also are well below the 10-year average passage rate for November elections of 61 percent.

Ohio voters may have been “lulled into a state of complacency,” said Deidra M. Brown, the director of governmental services for the Ohio Education Association.

Noting that Ohioans may believe districts simply need to tighten their belts, Ms. Brown added that voters seemed to ignore evidence that rising costs and increasing mandates—such as those found in the federal No Child Left Behind Act—are putting districts in a financial bind.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Minnesotans Get Behind Local School Tax Votes

Minnesotans may have elected a “no-new-taxes” candidate for governor last year in Republican Tim Pawlenty, but voters across the state said yes to a majority of local property-tax increases on Election Day this year.

More than 70 percent of school tax-increase requests won at the polls on Nov. 4, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association, with voters supporting 59 such referendums and rejecting 25.

The so-called excess levies have traditionally been used by districts to pay for the extras that state aid doesn’t cover. This year, however, schools are turning to voters for tax increases for basic needs that flat state spending levels won’t cover, said Shelley Tougas, the spokeswoman for the school boards’ group.

“There was a no-new-taxes pledge that swept throughout state last year, and we had a $4 billion deficit, so there were no funding increases for schools,” Ms. Tougas said. “At the same time, we have new [state learning] standards to implement, the new [federal] No Child Left Behind law and all of its requirements, and things like that driving up costs.”

Voters, she added, are coming to “understand those financial pressures facing schools.”

—Darcia Harris Bowman


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