News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Pa. Court Overturns Harrisburg Takeover

A state court has ruled that the law leading to last year's mayoral takeover of the Harrisburg, Pa., schools is unconstitutional.

Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court, in a 6-1 ruling, found that the 2000 law interferes with municipal forms of government, a violation of the state constitution.

"The touchstone of legislation is not that it is laudable or even that it reflects the public will, but that it is also within the limits of our Constitution," Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote in the court's Jan. 3 opinion voiding the state takeover.

The state attorney general's office appealed the ruling to the state supreme court the same day, which automatically puts the lower court's action on hold. Sean Connolly, a spokesman for the office, said the law was created for a whole class of school districts and not just the 7,400-student Harrisburg system.

But Ronald M. Katzman, a local attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he filed a motion on Jan. 4 to vacate the automatic stay and reverse the takeover. Mr. Katzman said the law represented the state's second attempt to seize control of the district legislatively and that it targeted Harrisburg by subterfuge.

The Dec. 21 state takeover of the Philadelphia schools, meanwhile, will not be affected by the ruling because the state enacted a different law to intervene in the 200,000-student district.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Mass. Rewards New Ideas

Massachusetts education officials plan to award $2.5 million in grants next month to schools and other entities with innovative proposals for boosting the achievement of students in the class of 2003.

The funds, which will also be available to businesses, community organizations, and colleges, will be earmarked for new programs in literacy and mathematics.

Preferences will be given to proposals to serve students whose first language is not English, and high school juniors who have struggled with the state's accountability exams, state officials said in announcing the grant program Jan. 7.accountability exams, state officials said in announcing the grant program Jan. 7.

Students in the class of 2003 must pass the state's MCAS exams in English language arts and mathematics to graduate.

High schools where more than 30 percent of the students in the class of 2003 failed at least one MCAS exam will also be given priority for the grants.

—John Gehring

Interim Illinois Chief Trims Agency

On Jan. 1, Ernest Wish officially took over as the interim state superintendent of schools in Illinois. And, in less than a week, the former business consultant eliminated 13 of the top 21 administrative jobs in the state education agency as part of a three-step reorganization that is to culminate this spring.

In addition, Mr. Wish ordered the number of officials who report directly to the superintendent reduced from 13 to seven. Included in those who report to him is the director of teaching and learning.

The next phase will involve organizing existing divisions and staff to avoid overlap and improve efficiency, said Kim Knauer, an agency spokeswoman.

The reduction in staff was not a cost-cutting measure, she said, but rather designed to make the agency more responsive to the needs of local schools.

"This plan will help us concentrate efforts on our priorities—and at the top of that list is our central focus on teaching and learning, with other agency functions supporting that work," Mr. Wish said in a written statement. Mr. Wish's contract expires at the end of June.

—Robert C. Johnston

Calif. Exam Discriminates, Group Says

Advocates for California's students with disabilities are asking a federal judge to halt the statewide high school exam that is scheduled to be given March 15.

The motion filed in federal court in late December said the test discriminates against students with disabilities because it does not allow them to use calculators or to rely on aides to read materials, unless they get special permission from the state.

"The test is disastrous for students with disabilities," said Sidney Wolinsky, a lawyer for the Oakland, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates. "They are already frustrated and would be devastated to be made to take a test they cannot pass."

In a related action, the nonprofit legal group sued the state in May, claiming the new exit exam would result in students with disabilities being held back unfairly from graduation. The suit has not yet been settled.

The class of 2004 will be the first required to pass the exit exam in order to graduate.

Doug Stone, a spokesman for the state education department, said the test should not be blocked: "We're still at the stage where we're developing the test, which doesn't count toward graduation until 2004. We need as much data as possible to make the changes."

There is no alternative assessment for students with disabilities, Mr. Wolinsky said.

Last year when the test was administered, 91 percent of the students in special education failed the math portion, he added.

By comparison, 52 percent of nondisabled students failed. In language arts, 82 percent of students with disabilities failed, while 31 percent of nondisabled students failed.

Students last year were able to seek any test accommodation that is allowed under their individualized education plans. But this year students will have to seek a special waiver from the state.

A hearing in federal district court is scheduled for Feb. 22.

—Lisa Fine

Vol. 21, Issue 18, Page 17

Published in Print: January 16, 2002, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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