News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Federal Court Upholds Va. Minute of Silence

A federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ruled last week that the state's "minute of silence" law does not violate the First Amendment's ban on government-established religion.

A federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ruled last week that the state's "minute of silence" law does not violate the First Amendment's ban on government-established religion.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton found that the Virginia law was enacted for "a secular purpose" and did not intend to advance any particular religion. The law, which went into effect last summer, requires that students in all public schools in Virginia observe a minute of silence in which students may "meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity."

While lawmakers who sponsored the legislation applauded the decision, a spokesman for the civil liberties group that sued on behalf of 10 students and their parents said he was dismayed that the judge had disregarded what the group sees as the law's religious intent.

"We are obviously disappointed," said Kent Willis, the executive director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which plans to appeal the decision.

—Jessica Portner

Lawsuit Opens New Front
In N.H. School Funding Fight

Two more towns in New Hampshire have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a statewide property tax, claiming that it's unfair to the property-rich towns that subsidize schools in other communities. The suit came just as testimony finished in another case against the tax.

Newbury and New London, which are in the Kearsage Regional School District, filed the suit last week in Merrimack County Superior Court.

The lawsuit argues that the state's current funding system does not take into account the purpose of such regional districts, in which wealthier towns like those that sued pay more per pupil than poorer ones in the district, said Dean Michener, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

The suit proposes, among other remedies, allowing wealthier towns in such districts to deduct the additional money they pay under the regional-district formula from their statewide property-tax responsibilities.

Meanwhile, testimony ended in a related suit brought by 27 towns that challenged the tax system as unfair.

—Lisa Fine

State Alters Accreditation Status
Of St. Louis Schools

The Missouri school board has voted to acknowledge progress in the St. Louis school district by granting it provisional accreditation.

"They've been working extremely hard this past year," said James Morris, a spokesman for the Missouri education commissioner's office. "We are happy with the work they've done. But everyone involved knows they have a long way to go."

Though technically the action means the district's rating drops a notch, board members actually view the change of status as an improvement. That's because they moved last year to strip St. Louis of its accreditation altogether. That effort was shelved, however, because last year's settlement of a long-running desegregation case temporarily protected the district from losing accreditation for two years.

Missouri's accreditation system has four categories: accredited with distinction, accredited, provisionally accredited, and unaccredited. The ratings are based on how well a district's schools meet state standards, many of which relate to student performance. A district that is unaccredited for two years may be taken over by the state.

—Lisa Fine

Washington State Sends Science Test
Back to the Lab

Washington state schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson has decided to delay the introduction of a statewide science test for 8th and 10th graders until the spring of 2002.

The exam was pilot-tested last spring and is scheduled to become mandatory for students at those grade levels next spring. But Ms. Bergeson and a science advisory panel agreed that the test needs to be reworked. "We have concerns about the difficulty and the coherence of the overall assessment design," she said.

Catherine Taylor, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington who reviewed the pilot test, said it strayed from the state's science standards by focusing too little on analysis and broad concepts.

The legislature must give permission for delaying the test, which the state created at a cost of $1.28 million. If it does so, a new version of the exam will be pilot-tested next spring.

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 24

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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