Wisconsin Gov. Signs School-Reform Measures

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Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin signed a host of education reforms into law last week, but vetoed an attempt to lower the state's compulsory school-attendance age to 16.

Mr. Thompson signed a state budget bill that overhauls the governance and structure of the state education department and provides an additional $1.2 billion in state aid to schools for property-tax relief.

The law also expands Milwaukee's voucher program to include religious schools.

The Governor's aides said he vetoed the proposal to drop the compulsory-attendance age from 18 to 16 after letters and telephone calls poured in from people who were concerned about the proposal.

He decided instead to have a committee study the issue.

The Association for Equity in Funding, a coalition of nearly 100 Wisconsin school districts, meanwhile, has vowed to file a lawsuit challenging the revised formula the state plans to use in distributing its school funds.

The group's leaders say the new formula will widen the gap between rich and poor districts.

Driver Protection: Lawmakers in North Carolina approved a bill late last month making it a misdemeanor to assault a school-bus driver.

Officials of the North Carolina Public School Bus Driver's Association had pushed for the law, which says that anyone who assaults a bus driver or any school official on a bus is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Punishment for the offense can range from one day of community service to 120 days in jail, depending on the criminal history of the person convicted.

Catherine Carpenter, the president of the bus drivers' group, said that though no one knows exactly how many of the state's 16,000 public school bus drivers are assaulted every year--usually by parents--the number is surprising.

"It doesn't happen every day," she said, but "it's happening everywhere." Ms. Carpenter said the law could help reduce high turnover among drivers. It takes effect Dec. 1.

A Plan for Action: Florida has joined about 20 other states that have created plans to force schools to do better.

Gov. Lawton Chiles approved an intervention strategy late last month that will target low-performing schools and allow state officials to take action if they fail to improve.

If a school's students continued to post low attendance rates or fare poorly on reading, writing, and mathematics exams over a three-year period, it could be required to hire a new principal with the authority to replace the entire faculty

The state could also give parents the opportunity to send their children to a different school at the expense of the district.

"This is a major step toward insuring that a Florida high school diploma represents real student achievement," said Frank T. Brogan, Florida's commissioner of education.

Reactions to the plan from local officials have been mixed. Some say it will bolster schools' accountability. Others say that competent teachers could lose their jobs and that the oversight would be excessive.

Stepping In: New York State education officials have appointed a panel of four educators to run a troubled Long Island district.

The panel is working on a plan for what it calls "immediate corrective action" for the 3,000-student Roosevelt district.

A state investigative team this spring reported several severe problems at the district's junior-senior high school, including failing facilities, personnel mismanagement, and poor student discipline.

State education officials stressed that the move was not a takeover but a temporary intervention. A committee of community leaders will work this fall with the state to draft a long-term plan for the district.

A bill written specifically to permit intervention in the Roosevelt district by state officials was sponsored by state representatives from the Roosevelt area and signed into law by Gov. George E. Pataki last month.

Desegregation Program Cut: Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey has terminated a program that had provided funding for desegregation efforts in the state.

Ms. Whitman's predecessor, Gov. James J. Florio, had established the desegregation-aid program.

Districts that received grants under the program and former education department officials described the program as effective.

However, Mrs. Whitman and her appointed education commissioner disputed this. They denounced the desegregation program's grants as political pork. (See Education Week, 5/10/95.)

Governor Whitman reduced funding for the program by half, to $7 million, in last year's state budget and deleted it entirely from her budget plan for fiscal 1996. The Republican-dominated state legislature easily approved the G.O.P. Governor's budget in June.

Pension Agreement Upheld: The West Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that the legislature's plan to repay the state's teacher-retirement system resolves a longstanding dispute over funding for the system.

For years, the state neglected its obligation to match teachers' contributions to their pensions. The problem was compounded in 1988 when the legislature authorized the payment of retiree health-insurance premiums with funds from the teacher-retirement system.

As of July 1 of last year, the resulting debt to the retirement system had grown to more than $3.2 billion.

A circuit court had found the issue worthy of judicial action.

But the state supreme court said last month that the legislature's plan to repay the system over the next 40 years was an adequate solution.

The high court also barred the transfer of money from the retirement system, and authorized the plaintiffs to reactivate the lawsuit at any future date if the state fails to meet its obligation under the agreement.

Vol. 14, Issue 41

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