News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Arizona Bill Would Broaden Pupils'
Right To Start Clubs

Legislation that would extend the right to organize extracurricular religious or political clubs at school from high school students to 7th and 8th graders advanced last week in the Arizona legislature.

Under the measure, schools would be prohibited from preventing students in those middle grades from holding meetings on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, "or other content of speech" at the meetings. The meetings would have to be organized by students, could not be sponsored by the school, and could not disrupt the school environment.

Sen. Scott Bundgaard proposed the measure after a middle school in the Phoenix area shut down a student-led Bible club earlier this year, citing legal concerns. Mr. Bundgaard, a Republican, said last week that the legislation's purpose was both "to allow kids to have the freedom to initiate clubs on campus" and "to give clear guidance that may protect schools from unnecessary litigation."

On April 17, the House of Representatives approved the bill by a vote of 42-12. The bill won preliminary approval in the Senate that day as well, but had not been given final approval as of press time last week.

Sen. Mary Hartley, a Democrat who opposes the measure, said it would create an administrative nightmare for the many schools in Arizona that serve students in grades K-8 or 4-8.

"This places an undue burden on principals of these schools to monitor and segregate the 7th and 8th grade students participating in these clubs from the younger students," Ms. Hartley argued.

The federal Equal Access Act already requires high schools receiving federal aid to give equal treatment to student groups that aren't sponsored by the school. The law was enacted in 1984 with the backing of groups arguing that student Bible clubs and other religious groups were being unconstitutionally barred from schools.

Robert Boston, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said Arizona should be prepared for the consequences of its legislation.

"Religious groups are fine, but the same right will have to be extended to gay-rights clubs, gun-rights clubs, and so on," he said. "And they really have to be student-run, which can be a difficult thing to police."

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Wash. State Bill Would Delay Tests

Students in Washington state would get a reprieve from some of the state's academic assessments if a measure approved by the Senate this month passes the House.

Under the bill passed April 4, and its companion measure introduced in the House on April 6, the state would postpone requiring its new science assessments until the 2003-04 school year. The legislation was introduced after state schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson concluded from trials of the science tests that they lacked technical rigor. The assessments were to be mandatory for middle and high school students this spring.

Mandatory social studies assessments for high school, middle school, and elementary school would move back two years, to 2007- 08. Required state tests in the arts and in health and fitness would all be postponed two years to 2008-09 or later, depending on the test.

The new timetable would also delay the release of the tests to districts for their voluntary use in advance of mandatory testing. Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, requested the bill, which passed the Senate by 42-2. Currently, the state mandates testing at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in reading, writing, communication, and mathematics.

—Andrew Trotter

Illinois House OKs Anti-Bully Bill

In an effort to crack down on school bullies and other potentially violent students, the Illinois House passed legislation this month to require school districts to enact policies on hostile students.

The bill would require districts to adopt discipline policies addressing students who have shown themselves to be "at risk for aggressive behavior" through such actions as bullying. It would also require districts to identify ways of notifying parents of their children's aggressive behavior and to take steps to curb such actions.

"I don't know if it will deter violence, but I know that when kids are violent, at least there will be a procedure, and maybe that will help someone," said Rep. Patricia Reid Lindner, the Republican who sponsored the bill.

The legislation would leave it up to districts to define what constitutes bullying of other students.

The House passed the legislation with overwhelming support on April 4. The bill was awaiting action in the Senate as of late last week.

—Mark Stricherz

Texas Schools Chief Confirmed

The job that most people thought Texas Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson got some 20 months ago is now his, free and clear. The state Senate unanimously confirmed Mr. Nelson in the post last week.

Jim Nelson

Mr. Nelson, a lawyer who formerly served as the chairman of the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, was originally appointed by Gov. George W. Bush in 1999, and earlier this year was reappointed by Gov. Rick Perry, the Republican who succeeded Mr. Bush after he became president.

Mr. Nelson's appointment was not acted on until now because the biennial Texas legislature was not in session during the last half of 1999 and all of 2000. His term runs through January 2003.

"Education issues are a top priority of this body, and the general consensus in the Senate is that he is doing a good job," said Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate nominations committee. She is no relation to the commissioner.

—Bess Keller

Vol. 20, Issue 32, Page 22

Published in Print: April 25, 2001, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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