News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Texas Names Schools Chief

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has named a lawyer to the state's top education job, the first time a noneducator has been chosen for the post.

James E. Nelson

James E. Nelson stepped down as the chairman of the state teacher-certification board to become education commissioner. He follows Mike Moses, who resigned last month after five years to become a deputy chancellor for the Texas Tech University System.

Mr. Bush described his choice as an "educational entrepreneur" who would reward success and challenge failure. Mr. Nelson, 49, pledged to continue the education initiatives begun by the governor, who as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination has touted the progress being made by schools in his state.

The new commissioner, who lives in Odessa, had chaired the State Board for Educator Certification since it was created in 1996. He was the president of the Texas Association of School Boards in 1993-94, and sat on the Ector County school board in Odessa from 1984 to 1995, sometimes as board president.

—Bess Keller

Court Prods N.M. on Facilities

New Mexico officials hope to find a legislative solution to the issue of how to pay for school facilities, after a state judge ruled this summer that the current system is unconstitutional.

Judge Joseph L. Rich in Gallup granted a motion by three plaintiff school districts for a partial summary judgment in their 1998 lawsuit against the state. The Zuni, Gallup, and Grants districts say the state's method of helping districts pay for facility improvements is inadequate and unfair to poor districts.

In the same July 28 ruling, the judge rejected a plea by 41 other districts to join the state as defendants in the case. While equalized state aid pays for most school operating expenses, costs of building and maintaining facilities are largely left up to local districts.

Representatives of various state offices plan to meet with lawmakers and the plaintiffs in hopes of crafting a proposed legislative solution in the months ahead.

—Lynn Schnaiberg

Philadelphia Lawsuit Reinstated

A federal appeals court has re-instated a lawsuit by the Philadelphia schools that challenges the state's school finance system as inadequate for the city's students and racially discriminatory.

The Aug. 25 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia overturned a lower-court ruling last year dismissing the case. The state is considering an appeal.

Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Doris Sloviter noted that while the decision would allow the case to go to trial, "we take no position on the merits of the allegations of the complaint."

The district, which is joined by civil rights groups, the city, and parents, claims the state aid system discriminates against Philadelphia's 215,000 students, 80 percent of whom are members of racial and ethnic minorities, because it leaves them with less funding than students in other systems.

A spokeswoman for the Philadelphia schools called the ruling "something of a vindication."

—Robert C. Johnston

N.H. Funding Battle Resumes

Five poor New Hampshire towns went back to court last month to challenge the school finance system created in response to their earlier funding lawsuit against the state.

In pleadings filed Aug. 19 with the state supreme court, the towns dispute the constitutionality of the new system, which established a statewide property tax to help pay for schools. They also say the $825 million that lawmakers set aside to finance schools beginning this year fails to meet the state's definition of "adequate."

New Hampshire's school funding system, which traditionally relied almost entirely on local property taxes, was declared unconstitutional by the state's highest court two years ago. Legislators spent much of last spring struggling to meet a court-imposed deadline for creating a more equitable system. ("At Long Last, N.H. Passes School Finance Plan," May 5, 1999.) Under the new system, the state share of school funding rises dramatically, from 8 percent to 60 percent.

State officials have until Sept. 10 to file an answer to the new motions in the case.

—Debra Viadero

Group Targets Mich. Voucher Ban

A coalition launched a campaign last week urging Michigan voters to support a ballot initiative that calls on the state to grant vouchers for children to attend private and religious schools.

The group, called Kids First! Yes!, needs to collect 302,711 signatures by next July 10 to qualify for the November 2000 ballot. The Lansing-based group, which includes business and religious leaders, wants to make vouchers worth up to $3,000 available to students in districts with graduation rates of two-thirds or lower.

The ballot proposal would remove the Michigan Constitution's explicit ban on tuition vouchers as well as its prohibition on using taxpayer dollars to indirectly support private or religious schools.

The initiative would also establish a minimum funding floor for public schools, require subject-area tests for teachers in public schools and private schools that accepted vouchers, and allow districts without low graduation rates to opt into the voucher program.

—Lynn Schnaiberg

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 20

Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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