News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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N.J. Plans Special Legislative Session To Finish Court-Ordered Facilities Bill

New Jersey lawmakers are gearing up to write the final chapter this month in what has been an embattled two-year drama to ratify a court-ordered construction plan worth an estimated $12 billion in work on new and existing school facilities.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman

New Jersey lawmakers are gearing up to write the final chapter this month in what has been an embattled two-year drama to ratify a court-ordered construction plan worth an estimated $12 billion in work on new and existing school facilities.

In the most recent action, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman issued a conditional veto on June 29 that sought changes in the facilities bill that lawmakers had sent her earlier in the month.

The Republican governor eliminated a provision that would have allowed legislators to veto some construction projects. She also proposed giving oversight of the massive effort to the state's economic-development authority rather than its educational facilities authority.

The Senate voted 38-0 the same day to accept the changes, sending the revised bill to the Assembly. With the summer recess looming, Assembly leaders complained that they lacked adequate time to review the legislation and postponed the lower chamber's vote until a special session scheduled for July 13.

As it stood going into that session, the plan would earmark $6 billion for projects in 30 of the state's neediest districts, as ordered by the state supreme court in 1998 as part of the Abbott v. Burke school finance lawsuit. Another $2.5 billion would go to other districts. Local communities would be expected to come up with $3.5 billion.

"Will it be enough for everyone? Probably not," said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "But it will be a lot better than what we have now, which is nothing."

—Robert C. Johnston

Mass. Unions Challenge Plan To Test Teachers

Two Massachusetts teachers' unions have filed suit over the state's plan to test mathematics teachers in middle and high schools where more than 30 percent of students fail the math portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.

The state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers filed a complaint last month alleging that testing the teachers conflicts with state education and collective-bargaining laws, and is discriminatory because it singles out a specific group of teachers, said Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the NEA.

The test, approved unanimously by the state board of education in May, is designed to be a diagnostic assessment to ensure that teachers get appropriate professional development, said Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the state education department. No teachers would lose their jobs based on the results of the exam, he said.

The assessment is scheduled to be pilot-tested this summer and be given to mathematics teachers who fit the state's criteria this fall, he said.

—Julie Blair

Colo. Board Urges Schools To Display Motto

The Colorado school board voted 6-1 last week in favor of a resolution urging schools and other public buildings to display the national motto "In God we trust."

Clair B. Orr, the chairman of the board and the resolution's sponsor, said it would remind schools of the religious heritage that the United States was founded on.

"I would hope to bring attention to the fact that from the first president forward, this country has recognized a supreme being, and our youth should know that, too," he said following the July 6 vote.

But Gully Stanford, the board member who voted against the measure and the only Democrat on the seven-member school board, said the resolution "leaves Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists to assume they are outsiders and others, presumably Christians, that they are insiders."

Posting such a motto in schools, where attendance is required, is inappropriate in the nation's increasingly pluralistic society, he said.

The resolution points out that the federal courts have repeatedly found the use of the national motto to be constitutional. The motto was first introduced by a law signed in 1864 by President Lincoln.

—Mary Ann Zehr

ACLU Sues Virginia Over Minute of Silence

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a new Virginia law that requires students in public schools to observe a daily minute of silence.

The law, which passed the legislature this year with overwhelming support, requires schoolchildren to start each day with a "minute of silence for the purpose of meditation, prayer, or other silent activity." Kent Willis, the director of the ACLU in Virginia, filed the lawsuit late last month on behalf of seven public school students and their parents. He argues that the law violates the First Amendment's ban on state-established religion.

"This legislation was clearly intended to promote prayer in public schools," he said. "A true minute-of-silence law that had no religious intent could be constitutional, but this crosses the line."

Schoolchildren attending summer school began observing their minute of silence last week.

Lila White, a spokeswoman for Gov. James Gilmore, a Republican, defended the practice last month. "The governor believes that giving students time to pause and reflect in the beginning of their day can only be to their benefit," Ms. Young said.

—Jessica Portner

Oregon Board Alters Testing Program

The Oregon board of education approved several changes to the state's testing program last month, but put off at least until fall bigger changes in the "certificate of initial mastery," the main benchmark of high school achievement under the state's 1991 education-reform law.

The board moved the 3rd grade writing test to the fall of 4th grade and the 5th grade science test to the fall of 6th grade to ease the testing burden on students in grades 3 and 5. The change will begin in the fall of 2001.

The board also voted last month to allow students to earn a CIM at any point in grades 9-12, rather than making it a 10th grade goal, in part, because of high initial failure rates on the tests given in grade 10. Students in the class of 2001 will be the first class eligible to earn the certificates.

To earn a certificate, students must pass state tests in writing, English, math, and science and complete eight classroom work samples. Additional subjects will be phased in during the next four years. Although the CIM is not required to earn a diploma, state officials hope that employers and colleges will value it.

But the board delayed action on a recommendation from Stan Bunn, the state superintendent, that students be able to earn certificates in individual subjects, rather than requiring them to meet the standards in all subjects tested to earn a CIM, as is now required.

—Lynn Olson

Arizona Limits Scope of Its Math Assessment

On the mathematics test they must pass to graduate from high school, Arizona students would face a more focused exam with only half the number of performance objectives as the current version, under changes sanctioned recently by the state school board.

Approved by the board on June 26, the proposed revisions were recommended by a task force appointed this spring by the state education department to study the math portion of the state's graduation test, known as the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS.

Under the new policy, which must still be approved by the state's attorney general, test questions would be limited to material covered in two high school math courses the board recently required all students to take: 9th grade algebra and 10th grade geometry. The new requirements, would affect the graduating class of 2004.

The proposed changes come as the AIMS in general, and its math section in particular, is under fire from some state lawmakers and members of the public. Only 11 percent of sophomores tested last spring passed the math section of the test.

At last month's meeting, board members and state Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan also discussed delaying the graduation requirement for the math portion of the AIMS until 2004 to ensure students have been taught the material.

But an education department spokeswoman said no decision is expected until the results of the spring 2000 exams become available this fall.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

New Mexico Adopts Plan for Rating Schools, Districts

The New Mexico board of education has passed a comprehensive set of standards that includes a system for ranking schools and districts, and allows the state board to take control of failing schools.

The standards were developed in response to legislation passed in 1997 that required the board to create an educational accountability system.

The rankings under the new system will range from "exemplary" to "probationary." Slightly more than two- thirds of a ranking will be based on test scores, while the remainder will be determined by its dropout and attendance rates.

Schools and districts under probation will be required to craft improvement plans and show results within a year. If their ratings do not improve the next year, they must follow an improvement strategy developed by the state for two years.

If schools or districts remain in probationary status following that effort, the state board will take them over, according to Kathryn Weil, the assistant state superintendent for accountability and information services.

—Michelle Galley

Mass. Legislature Overrides Early-Retirement Veto

An early-retirement plan for Massachusetts' teachers that sparked intense political debate is now state law, following votes in both the state House and Senate to override Gov. Paul Cellucci's veto of the measure.

Teachers' unions characterized the plan as an important step in improving retirement benefits for educators who have spent decades serving in the school system, saying it would help attract and retain strong teachers.

Gov. Paul Cellucci

But the governor argued that the measure bowed to a special-interest group, would result in the loss of thousands of teachers, and would impede educational improvement.

The new retirement plan applies to public school teachers who have served at least 30 years and would increase their pensions by 2 percent for every year of service after 24 years. Individual teachers' pensions will be capped at 80 percent of the average of the three years in which they earned their highest salaries.

The system will require teachers to contribute 11 percent of their annual pay; teachers currently contribute 9 percent on their first $30,000 of salary and 11 percent thereafter.

"We are very pleased this has passed," said Stephen Gorrie, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "It has taken a long time."

John Birtwell, Gov. Cellucci's press secretary, said the Republican governor was disappointed but not surprised that "the legislature put special interests ahead of schoolchildren. The governor has steadfastly said this rash provision will rob us of thousands of experienced teachers at a time when we need them most."

—John Gehring

South Carolina Charter School Law Still in Limbo

The South Carolina legislature failed to rescue the state's charter school law from constitutional limbo before adjourning its regular session last month, paving the way for a possible showdown in the state's highest court.

In May, a state circuit court judge ruled that a racial-balance provision rendered the state's entire charter school law unconstitutional because it could not be severed from the rest of the act as written by lawmakers.("Judge Overturns South Carolina's Charter School Law," May 24, 2000.)

Both chambers of the legislature proposed their own rewrites of the law in response to the court ruling, but a compromise to sever the controversial racial clause from the rest of the act came too late in the session for action.

The 1996 law requires charter schools to maintain a racial composition in their student body that does not differ from the makeup of its host school district by more than 10 percent.

The circuit court ruling was the latest development in a three-year administrative and legal battle between the Beaufort County school district and backers of the proposed Lighthouse Charter School.

Lighthouse lawyer George E. Mullen filed a motion with the court to reconsider its ruling on whether the race provision can be separated from the rest of the law. Expecting the judge to reject that motion, Mr. Mullen said he plans to appeal the decision to the state supreme court.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Pages 26, 28

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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