News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Budget Bills Die in Alabama

Alabama Gov. Fob James Jr. killed the state's $940 million general fund budget bill and a $3.7 billion education budget measure by failing to sign them late last month.

Mr. James plans to call the legislature into a special session in August to tackle budget questions. The state's new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. If an education budget is signed before then, there would be no gap in funding for schools.

The governor said he used the so-called pocket veto--failing to sign the bills by a deadline--because the measures provided inadequate funding for essential state services such as prisons, and instead appropriated millions for legislators' pet projects. Under the budget plans, several agencies, including the education department, would have come away with more money than they had requested.

"It is dead wrong to allow pork barrel projects to take precedence over the basic safety and security of the average Alabama citizen," Gov. James, a Republican, said in a prepared statement.

Observers said they could not remember another time when an Alabama governor had vetoed both budgets.

Va. May Make Sex Ed. Optional

Gov. George F. Allen has proposed eliminating Virginia's sex education requirement and allowing local school boards to decide whether to provide such courses to students.

In a May 30 letter to state school board President Michelle Easton, the Republican governor, who will leave office next January, said one of his education goals this year is to allow more classroom time for "priority subjects" such as English, science, history, and foreign languages.

Ms. Easton said there is support on the board for the governor's recommendations, which board members planned to vote on this week. The proposal has garnered both praise and criticism from other state observers.

The state now requires districts to offer sex education courses beginning in elementary school and to fulfill 10 curriculum objectives in the area. Parents may remove their children from such classes. Only 2 percent of parents of schoolchildren statewide exercise that option in a given year, state education officials said.

Calif. Moves on Worker Checks

Less than one month after the campus slaying of an 18-year-old high school senior, California lawmakers are rallying behind bills that would strengthen background-check requirements for school employees.

Michelle Montoya's body was found May 16 in the wood shop of Rio Linda High School near Sacramento. Alex Del Thomas, a 34-year-old, newly hired substitute janitor who was on parole for manslaughter, is charged with the murder.("Slaying Casts Spotlight on Job Screening," May 28, 1997.)

The Assembly, the legislature's lower house, passed a bill May 29 that would bar districts from hiring noncertified employees until the applicants' background checks were final. Mr. Thomas was hired before his check was complete.

Another Assembly-passed bill would prohibit schools from hiring anyone convicted of a violent or serious felony and provide $5 million to build a faster fingerprinting system for background reviews.

In the Senate, lawmakers passed a bill to create a statewide computer network of conviction records with local terminals for school use.

More Charters for Texas

The Texas legislature wrapped up its biennial session by expanding the state's public-school-choice program.

One change would allow 100 new charter schools to open over the next two years. At least 200 applications were submitted since 1995 for the 20 charter school slots allowed under current law.

"This legislation gives tremendous choice to parents and students who are unhappy with the status quo," said Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican.

Before completing its session late last month, the legislature also guaranteed to cover the full costs to public school districts for accepting students from low-performing schools under the state's 2-year-old school choice law.

Few students have used the option, state officials say, citing a lack of publicity as well as resistance by schools and school districts that had been asked to absorb some of the costs of taking on the transfers.

Tenn. Wraps With Test Changes

Tennessee lawmakers closed their 1997 session by passing changes to the state's K-12 testing system.

A bill headed to Republican Gov. Don Sundquist as the legislature finished its work last month would scrap the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program's 2nd grade exam.

Commissioner of Education Jane Walters had argued that 2nd grade test results were inflated because teachers read exam questions aloud. Third graders read test questions themselves, even though their performance is gauged against the 2nd grade exam. ("Tenn. Bill To Revamp Accountability System Debated," June 4, 1997.)

The 2nd grade exam would be replaced with new 1st and 2nd grade basic-skills tests.

"We need to assure ourselves that we're getting from testing what we're paying for," said Sen. Andy Womack, the Democratic chairman of the education committee.

The bill also would postpone the start of high school subject tests for a year, until 2000, add fiscal audits to every school's annual state report card, and create new writing assessments in grades 4, 7, and 11.

Student-Loan Tax Break Floated

Seeking to make student loans for college less of a burden on Massachusetts residents, Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques has proposed legislation that would make interest paid on student loans tax-deductible.

Currently, no other state allows such a tax deduction, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ms. Jacques' plan, introduced late last month, would allow state residents--regardless of where their children or they attend school--to deduct one-half the interest paid on student loans from their state income tax. "This tax break will make higher education more affordable," said Sen. Jacques, a Democrat.

Student borrowing for college is at an all-time high nationally, and more than 60 percent of college graduates emerge from school with loans to repay, according to the College Board.

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