News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Pa. Teachers' Union Sues To Block Intervention Law

The Pennsylvania State Education Association has asked a state court to overturn a law that gives Keystone State officials broad new power to intervene in school districts based on their students' performance on the state's standardized exams.

Eleven districts were initially singled out for intervention by the Education Empowerment Act when it was signed into law last spring. Among other mandates in the law, the districts must devise school improvement plans and then submit them to the state education department for approval. Districts that fail to improve could eventually be taken over by the state.

The teachers' union, which is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, argues in its suit that the law violates the state constitution because the legislature did not properly consider the bill.

In addition, the union contends that the state exam was never intended to be used to compare districts, and it alleges that teachers' contractual rights are violated by provisions that would allow the state wrest control of districts from local parents and teachers.

"The school districts targeted in Act 16 are not empowered, but instead actually lose control of their schools, their tax dollars, and their education," Patsy Tallarico, the union's president, said in a prepared statement.

But state Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok called the suit "an affront to our children who, by a reliable and accurate measure, aren't receiving the education they need and deserve."

—Robert C. Johnston

Ark. Teaching Awards Questioned

An Arkansas law that prohibits public employees from receiving gifts as compensation does apply to teachers, the state ethics commission recently decided. But the commission also says the law should be amended to make sure educators are eligible for such awards as "teacher of the year."

Under current law, no legislator or other public official can receive a gift that exceeds $100 in value. Applying that ban to teachers means that they can no longer accept such honors as the Arkansas Teacher of the Year award, which includes a $15,000 monetary prize, or the $25,000 Milken Family Foundation awards given in many states. The ruling does not apply to past award winners.

The ethics commission, which enforces disclosure laws for state and local public officials, issued an opinion on the matter Aug. 11, following a request by the Arkansas Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. Bills have already been drafted in the legislature to correct the problem, according to Raymond Simon, the director of the state education department. "I have every confidence that we will be successful in passing such legislation," he said.

The state will continue to recognize a teacher of the year, Mr. Simon said, but the monetary prize will be delayed until the law is amended.

—John Gehring

Former W.Va. Chief Reprimanded

The former state schools superintendent in West Virginia has been reprimanded by the state ethics commission for making personal long-distance telephone calls at taxpayer expense.

Henry Marockie, who served as schools chief for 11 years, resigned in March, about three months short of his planned retirement, after a newspaper reported that he had made at least $1,200 in personal long-distance calls over the previous four years using his office account or a state-issued calling card.

Last month, Mr. Marockie paid a $1,000 fine and reimbursed the state $228 for personal phone calls he made at the state's special rate during the year that was the subject of the commission's investigation, a time limit set by law. He had previously reimbursed the state for $42 in such calls.

In a statement issued after signing the Aug. 7 agreement, Mr. Marockie said he accepted the findings of the ethics commission and apologized for the calls in question. "The majority of these personal calls, many of which had a partial business purpose in my judgment, were made while I was on business out of my office," he wrote.

—Bess Keller

W.Va. Names Permanent Chief

David Stewart, who was appointed West Virginia's state schools superintendent last March, has been declared the best man for the job on a permanent basis.

The state school board announced last month that it had ended the national search it started last winter because it was happy with Mr. Stewart's performance and wanted him to stay for the long term. West Virginia law does not allow for an interim or acting chief.

Mr. Stewart, who succeeded Henry Marockie, had served since 1998 as the assistant superintendent in charge of administrative services. Before that, he worked as an assistant division chief in the state education department and served as the superintendent of the Kanawha County, W.Va., district. He has also been a teacher, a principal, and a school business officer.

—Bess Keller

Nevada Superintendent To Leave

Mary L. Peterson, Nevada's superintendent of public instruction, has announced that she will step down from her position when her term ends Dec. 31.

Ms. Peterson, 50, said in an interview that she had decided to leave at the end of her second three-year term for a combination of personal and professional reasons. She is exploring her options for the future, but whatever she chooses will be "nonpublic for sure," she said.

"It's a natural time to make a change," Ms. Peterson said last month. "We've accomplished a lot, but there is still a long way to go. It's time for someone else to lead us into that next phase."

Ms. Peterson, who was first appointed to her position by the state board of education in January 1995, announced her decision to the board of education in late July. During her tenure time, the state has adopted more rigorous academic standards, expanded its testing system, and begun a new accountability system to identify and assist low-performing schools.

The state board has begun a search for Ms. Peterson's replacement.

—Catherine Gewertz

Tenn. Identifies Lagging Schools

Tennessee has identified 48 low- performing elementary and middle schools for assistance in its first annual review of schools.

The schools in question are not necessarily the lowest- performing in the state, said Vernon Coffey, the state education commissioner. But they are schools that have not shown adequate progress in improving their 1998 and 1999 scores on state assessments in reading, language arts, and mathematics in grades 3 to 8.

"This is a preliminary measure," Mr. Coffey said in announcing the schools in late July. "I want to let schools know now that the department is looking closely at how well students are progressing and how well schools are preparing them to meet higher standards."

The department will offer resources and staff support to the 48 schools identified. That move is a first step, and if the schools do not show adequate improvement, they could be placed on notice or probation and be required to implement the state's recommendations.

Mr. Coffey also warned other schools that they, too, could come under scrutiny as the state raises the bar in coming years and applies new standards to high schools.

—Joetta L. Sack

New La. Tests Boost Retentions

As many as 18,000 4th and 8th graders in Louisiana are being held back this year because they failed the state's new high-stakes exams.

Last spring, roughly 38,000 of the 110,000 students who took the exams failed the mathematics or English sections. The state offered free summer school to failing students. Of those who took a retest this summer, about 13,000 passed. Louisiana is the first state with a statewide policy for holding back elementary and middle school students based on high-stakes tests.

A Louisiana Department of Education official said the state does not yet have final figures on the number of students who are being held back, but not all failing students will meet that fate. Special education students are eligible for waivers of the testing policy, at their districts' discretion. In addition, students can appeal if they are close to passing and have averages of B or better in the subjects they failed on the exam.

And while 4th graders will repeat their grade in a transitional 4th grade class, districts have the option of either holding 8th graders back or allowing them to proceed to high school while taking remedial courses in the subjects they failed.

Meanwhile, a group of parents in New Orleans is suing the state to block it from using the test to determine whether students are promoted to the next grade. A separate lawsuit was filed last spring by parents, but a federal judge rejected that effort.

—Erik W. Robelen

Texas Medicaid Program Faulted

Texas has failed to adequately fix the state's faulty Medicaid program that provides health care to more than 1.5 million poor children in the state, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice found Texas officials in violation of a 1996 consent decree stipulating that the state was failing to comply with a federal law to provide timely and adequate health care to the indigent children enrolled in the Medicaid program.

In last month's ruling, Judge Justice cited Texas' continued failure to educate families about treatment options and to provide transportation to medical appointments when needed. The judge also found that the managed-care plans that serve a third of the Texas' Medicaid recipients often actively block Medicaid patients' access to needed supplies or specialists.

"We brought the case because we saw a lot of children in Texas were not getting what they needed and that Congress said they were entitled to," said Susan Zinn, a lawyer who originally brought the case in 1993 on behalf of four families on Medicaid. "This shows that the state does not have its managed-care program in good shape."

Michael Jones, a spokesman for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, called the ruling "strange" in light of the changes the state has made to improve the program in recent years. "The funding for the program has improved dramatically under Governor Bush," he said. The state had not decided late last week whether it would appeal.

—Jessica Portner

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 38

Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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