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News in Brief: A Washington Roundup

March 10, 2004 4 min read
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Girl in Pledge Class Cannot Attend Court

The California 4th grader whose father is challenging the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance will not be allowed to hear him argue his case this month before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A state family court judge who is handling the ongoing custody fight between Michael A. Newdow and the mother of his daughter last week turned down the father’s request to take the girl to Washington, on grounds that it could be harmful to her.

Children are not allowed to be present during court proceedings in which their parents’ custody battles are discussed, and the judge deemed it likely that questions about custody of the girl would arise during the March 24 oral arguments in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (Case No. 02-1624).

Dr. Newdow, a medical doctor with a law degree who is representing himself, said last week that he was disappointed that his daughter would miss a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to hear her father argue before the Supreme Court. But the girl’s mother, Sandra L. Banning, said she was pleased with the ruling. Ms. Banning does not object to the pledge and has protested Dr. Newdow’s involvement of their daughter in the case. (“Pledge Debate Taken to Heart in Calif. District,” March 3, 2004.)

Besides the constitutionality of the Elk Grove, Calif., school district’s policy of requiring daily, teacher-led recitations of the pledge, the high court is considering whether Dr. Newdow had legal standing to challenge that policy. His custody status bears directly on the issue of standing.

—Caroline Hendrie

Justices Decline Case On Illinois Consolidation

The U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment last week to consider the appeal of a group of opponents of a move to dissolve a small Illinois school district.

The Puffer-Hefty Elementary School District 69, which serves students in grades K- 8 in Downers Grove, Ill., had asked the high court to review a ruling against it by an Illinois appellate court.

Among other arguments, the 385-student district said that a petition drive that sought the district’s dissolution was unconstitutional because it did not allow residents to vote on the matter.

About 1,100 voters from the Puffer-Hefty district petitioned the DuPage County Regional Board of School Trustees in 1997 to annex the district. That eventually led the county board to order that Puffer-Hefty be dissolved and merged with another elementary district, Downers Grove School District No. 58.

After Puffer-Hefty challenged that decision, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the state law that allows for the dissolution and annexation of school districts with fewer than 5,000 residents by petition alone. The Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the district’s appeal, and on March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit when it declined to consider Puffer-Hefty School District No. 69 v. DuPage Regional Board of School Trustees (Case No. 03-973).

—Caroline Hendrie

Effort to Penalize Colleges On Cost Increases Dropped

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon said last week that he would remove from a bill he is sponsoring a provision that would have penalized colleges and universities if they imposed steep tuition hikes on students year after year.

The California Republican said he agreed to withdraw the much-scrutinized language from his overall bill, the proposed Affordability in Higher Education Act, because he had seen several colleges and universities take measures to curb costs since he first proposed the plan. The provision would have cut colleges’ access to federal financial aid if they continued to increase tuition. It had drawn scorn from many higher education lobbyists.

“I am delighted that my bill successfully sent a strong message to colleges and universities that more must be done,” Rep. McKeon said in a March 3 statement.

He singled out the American Association of State Colleges and Universities as helping persuade him to withdraw his proposal by offering to work with federal lawmakers in finding innovative ways to control college prices.

Mr. McKeon warned, however, that he would reinsert the provision if the cost-curbing measures by colleges did not continue.

—Sean Cavanagh

Senator Urges Changes In Federal School Law

An Oregon senator proposed changes last week to the way the Bush administration is administering the No Child Left Behind Act, and he threatened to introduce legislation to alter the law if the Department of Education did not act on his suggestions.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, announced March 2 a list of five changes he said were needed to improve the law. The suggestions arose from “listening sessions” Mr. Wyden held across Oregon and in cooperation with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo, according to Mr. Wyden’s office.

The proposed changes include altering the way school assessments are carried out and using more flexibility in scoring schools and labeling them “in need of improvement.” Mr. Wyden also said that rural schools should have more leeway in meeting the requirements of the law, particularly when it comes to teacher qualifications and school choice. The Department of Education could make those changes through regulations, but if it fails to act, the senator said, he will introduce legislation to force the changes.

—Michelle R. Davis


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