News In Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Mich. Says No More 'Novices'

Michigan lawmakers have bowed to parent protests and voted to suspend the "novice" designation for the statewide high school proficiency tests.

The House and Senate unanimously passed identical proposals late last month. Republican Gov. John Engler is expected to back the change.

Juniors who take the 11-hour test can still earn "proficient" distinctions on their transcripts and diplomas for the math, science, and reading/writing portions of the test. The label is a state endorsement of the diploma and tells employers that a graduate is competent in basic skills.

But parents blasted the "novice" designation, which would have appeared on transcripts of students who performed below the state's standard for proficient. The critics charged that the label was ambiguous and a negative reflection on children.

State education officials have already told local districts to honor the change for this year's graduates.

Texas Tax Overhaul Fails

An ambitious effort by Texas lawmakers to revamp school property taxes ended abruptly when House and Senate negotiators deadlocked over competing plans.

The failure late last month was a major setback for Republican Gov. George W. Bush, who made tax reform a top issue for this year's legislature.

"I fought hard for what I thought could be a consensus package of almost $4 billion in property-tax cuts for the people of Texas," Mr. Bush said in a written statement. But House and Senate lawmakers could not close their huge divide.

A House plan would have raised $3.8 billion in business taxes, cut property taxes by $5 billion, and raised the state share of school spending from 47 percent to 80 percent.

The Senate bill would have raised $800 million in taxes, cut property taxes by $2.5 billion, and raised state aid to schools to 52 percent.

"It's disappointing," said state school board member Rene Nunez of El Paso. He added that, without tax relief, voters will be less receptive to school bonds. "My biggest concern is facilities. Districts are growing and the attitude toward bonds is not going to be positive."

N.J. Issues Rules for Aid

Following the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision that more than two dozen poor districts are entitled to additional state aid totaling up to $250 million, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman has announced rules that she says are intended to ensure the money is spent efficiently.

Mrs. Whitman said in a written statement last week that she would not ask the court to reconsider its May 14 decision that ordered the state to equalize spending between those urban school districts and their wealthy suburban counterparts. The court rejected the governor's plan to limit state aid to poor districts to the amount needed to meet new academic standards. ("For 4th Time, Court Rejects N.J. Formula," May 21, 1997.)

The Republican governor has instructed the 28 low-income districts identified in the long-running Abbott v. Burke school finance suit to submit plans detailing how extra aid would be used. She said districts would have to win monthly approval from state-appointed auditors.

The money--which comes on top of the roughly $5 billion the state had planned to spend on K-12 schools in 1997-98--may be spent on decreasing class sizes, instructional materials, technology, professional development, early-childhood education, maintenance, and security, Mrs. Whitman said in the statement.

David Sciarra, the lead attorney for the Abbott plaintiffs, said the governor's plan focuses too much on auditing and too little on educational improvement.

Wis. Internet Bill Advances

Higher phone bills in Wisconsin would help pay for school Internet wiring and computer training under a bill recently approved by a joint legislative committee and backed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

The bill would provide about $206 million in grants and loans to schools and libraries over the next two years, said Jake Blavat, an aide to Rep. David E. Hutchison, the Republican who chairs the joint committee on information policy. Mr. Blavat said $12.2 million in aid would come from phone companies, and he estimated local phone bills would rise 15 cents a month. Bonds and general tax revenue would provide the rest of the support.

The bill targets some money toward low-income and small school districts. It also would channel money toward Internet access fees so school districts that log on to the Internet for the first time would pay no more than $250 a month.

The bill has been added to the state budget, which is slated for a vote early next month. Critics say schools should focus more on teaching math and reading than on expensive technology.

Hawaii Makes It Official

The Hawaii board of education and the governor have formalized a zero-tolerance policy for students caught with drugs or weapons in the state's 242 schools.

The policy will allow principals to suspend students for up to a full school year for bringing a weapon to school, and up to 92 days, or a semester, for those caught with other weapons, drugs, or alcohol.

The update to the state school policy will bring it into compliance with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 and applicable state laws.

The stringent penalties have been in effect for the past year, but the wording of the policy had not been formally changed. The earlier version allowed for suspensions of up to 10 days for minor offenses, and for more than 10 days for serious ones.

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