News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Florida Ed. Dept. Looking Into Bible-History Classes

The Florida education department has begun looking into allegations that 14 districts in the state are violating the U.S. Constitution's ban on a government establishment of religion by teaching the Bible from a religious perspective.

A report released in January by the People For the American Way Foundation, a Washington-based liberal watchdog organization, contends that the districts teach "Bible history" courses from a Christian perspective; that they use the Bible as a history textbook; and that they employ Sunday school and other religious-training exercises to indoctrinate students in biblical content. ("Schools' Bible Courses 'Taught Wrong,' Report Says," Jan. 19, 2000.)

"We are working with the districts to see what assistance they need, and if they need to change anything," said JoAnn Carrin, a spokeswoman for the education department. "We are in an information- gathering phase."

—John Gehring

Texas Cracks Down on Class Size

A new policy in Texas will make it harder for low- performing schools to obtain repeated exemptions from state class-size limits that require pupil-teacher ratios of no more than 22-to-1 in grades K- 4.

In a letter sent last month to school administrators, the Texas Education Agency said that schools applying for waivers for more than four consecutive semesters would be "expected to have an acceptable accountability rating." The state accountability system, which is based on test scores, attendance, and dropout rates, ranks schools as exemplary, recognized, acceptable, or low-performing.

In addition, all schools applying for exemptions for three or more semesters in a row will be required to hold public meetings to explain the waiver requests to parents.

The new rule is designed to end the growing number of classes that exceed the state caps, and to break a pattern in some districts of exceeding the limits year after year, said Debbie Graves Ratcliff, the communications director for the state agency. Last year, 149 districts applied for exemptions, up from 93 five years ago. And 26 districts applied for exemptions five years in a row, according to Ms. Ratcliff.

—Michelle Galley

'Chain Gang Charlie' in Fla. Race

Former Florida state Sen. Charlie Crist has announced his candidacy for state education commissioner. Mr. Crist, a Republican who served in the Senate from 1992 to 1998 and is the currently the only GOP candidate in the race, has received strong support from state party officials, including Lt. Gov. Frank T. Brogan.

If elected, Mr. Crist would succeed Tom Gallagher, who is running for the U.S. Senate and will step down from his post as education commissioner next January.

During his tenure in the legislature, Mr. Crist earned the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" for the tough-on-crime initiatives he supported. "I hope in this election Chain Gang Charlie will become Chalkboard Charlie, because I just think that education is so important," Mr. Crist said in an interview last week.

State Rep. James Bush III is the only announced Democratic candidate in the race.

Once elected, the new education commissioner will serve for only two years. State residents voted in 1998 to make the job a gubernatorially appointed position in 2002.

—Jessica L. Sandham

Va. 'Minute of Silence' Advances

Students in Virginia would be required to observe a daily "minute of silence" if legislation that passed the Senate last week becomes law.

Sen. Warren E. Barry, the Republican who is sponsoring the measure, said that recent outbreaks of school violence around the nation prompted the legislation, which would require teachers to announce to their classes each morning that the silence time was to be used for reflection, meditation, or prayer. No other activity would be permitted during the minute, Mr. Barry said.

Current state law lets districts mandate a moment of silence, but only a few districts have such policies in place, he said.

Elliot Mincberg, the vice president and legal director for the Washington-based People For the American Way, said that because the measure requires specific instructions by teachers, it amounts to a state promotion of religion. "That kind of pressure put on children hurts religious liberty," he said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. James S. Gilmore III said the Republican supports the bill.

—Michelle Galley

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Page 19

Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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