News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Ill. Reins In Education Dept.

The Illinois board of education has moved to tighten controls over the state education department and Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo's office. The action came one week after a state audit made allegations of mismanagement and other violations at the agency. ("Audit Questions Oversight Of Ill. Education Agency," March 26, 1997.)

At its first official meeting, held March 19, the new nine-member state board approved the formation of five committees to take a closer look at the department's $23 million operating budget and its 700-plus employees and to revamp evaluation and oversight procedures for the superintendent's office.

The board also voted to cancel a salary bonus in place for Mr. Spagnolo and to shift much of the authority for approving professional-services contracts and hiring lawyers and lobbyists from Mr. Spagnolo to the board.

"We're adding tremendous oversight," Louis Mervis, the board chairman, said at the meeting.

Mr. Mervis, who affirmed the board's support for the schools chief, asked the committees to present their findings and recommendations at a board meeting scheduled for April 16-17.

N.H. To Join in Goals 2000

After holding out for three years, the New Hampshire state school board has decided to participate in Goals 2000, the federally funded school improvement program that was the centerpiece of President Clinton's first-term education agenda.

That leaves only two states--Montana and Oklahoma--that have not yet indicated whether they will apply for the federal funds. The deadline for this year is June 30. Both states allow local school districts to apply for Goals 2000 monies.

By a 4-2 vote, the New Hampshire school board on March 24 authorized Commissioner of Education Elizabeth Twomey to submit an application to the U.S. Department of Education. The documents were mailed that afternoon.

The state stands to receive $1.7 million from the federal government, with 90 percent of the money to be passed on to local school districts and 10 percent remaining at the state level. Already, 16 districts in the state are participating in the program.

Republican Ovide Lamontagne, the former chairman of the state board, strongly opposed the program.

He resigned from the board last year to run for governor and was defeated by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

Study Ranks Charter Laws

Arizona's laws create the most hospitable climate for charter schools, while Arkansas' legislation on the subject is the least encouraging, according to a ranking of charter school laws across the states.

The ranking by the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, an advocacy group that supports school choice, takes into account 11 aspects of charter laws, such as the number of new schools allowed, the degree of guaranteed funding, and whether teachers are exempted from collective bargaining agreements.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia now have laws on their books that allow such schools.

The independent public schools are freed from most education regulations to pursue distinctive approaches to teaching and curriculum.

About 500 charter schools operate nationwide, according to the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the center, called the ranking "an initial tool for people who are looking at what kind of legislation to craft and want to keep all the basics."

States placed highest when their legislation offered charter schools maximum authority and flexibility while putting few restrictions on their number and kind, Ms. Allen said.

Copies of the ranking and a state-by-state analysis of charter school laws are available for $9.95 from the Center for Education Reform, 1001 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 204, Washington, D.C. 20036; or call (202) 822-9000.

N.C. Approves Charter Schools

The North Carolina board of education has approved its first 37 charter schools, one of the largest charter school initiatives in the nation.

The diverse group of schools, which will begin operating next school year, were selected last month from 67 applicants. They include a middle school within a children's museum, a high school program at a county jail, and a K-12 school for children with dyslexia.

The charter school law approved by the legislature last June calls for 100 charter schools throughout the state--up to five per county--in an effort to encourage innovation in public education.

Vt. House Backs Tax Reform

In an effort to distribute education funds more equitably among school districts, the Vermont House has passed a tax-reform plan that would create a statewide property tax, a local income tax, and raise some existing taxes.

The plan, passed on March 20 by an 81-62 vote, would replace the local property tax with a state property tax on residences, vacation homes, and businesses.

In addition, each town would set its own income tax, depending on the budget the community approves. The sales tax also would be raised one penny, to 6 percent.

The gasoline tax would be raised 3 cents per gallon, and the room and meals tax would be raised 2 percentage points, to 9 percent.

The action came soon after the state supreme court found Vermont's system for financing education unconstitutional because the aid formula leads to inequities based on a town's property wealth.

The court handed the legislature the task of fixing it. ("Court Orders Lawmakers To Fix Vermont School-Funding Formula," Feb. 12, 1997.)

Robert A. Gensburg, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the finance case, said he was not sure that the plan would meet the court's approval, but that a quick remedy was needed.

"When these children go back to school in September, the funding system must be as far along as physically possible," he said.

The bill has been referred to the Senate education committee.

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