News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Ohio School Finance Case Heading Back to Court

Ohio's court-ordered mediation in the state's 11-year-old school finance case ended last week when the chief mediator announced that the two sides could not reach a compromise.

Howard S. Bellman, a lawyer hired in December to mediate the case, told the court in a brief letter delivered on March 21 that he was "very sorry I could not achieve the desired end." He reportedly had left negotiations two days earlier, essentially admitting the talks had failed.

The DeRolph v. State of Ohio case now returns to the Ohio Supreme Court, which voted 4-3 last September to uphold the school finance system, but with conditions that included the state's agreeing to spend billions of dollars more on public schools than it does now.

"We're disappointed that we couldn't reach some agreement," said Joe Andrews, the spokesman for Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican.

William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, said negotiations were going strong until March 18, when "good faith" discussions between the state and the plaintiffs ended in a stalemate. "When the state has the position that the system is OK, and we have the position that the system is egregious, then that's too wide a gap to bridge," he said last week.

—Alan Richard

Md. Must Meet Title I Testing Rules

The U.S. Department of Education will require Maryland to give its 8th grade tests in middle schools that participate in the federal Title I program, a department official said last week.

Susan B. Neuman, the department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in an interview that the department would enforce the requirements in the 1994 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that states test students in Title I schools at least once at each level of precollegiate education: elementary, middle, and high school.

Maryland had proposed that all districts be allowed to opt out of the 8th grade tests in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which has come under fire after many districts suffered significant drops in scores last year. ("Controversy Surrounds Release of Maryland Test Results," Feb. 6, 2002.)

But Maryland officials then reviewed that decision in light of the federal law. In a meeting with Ms. Neuman this month, state officials proposed that they comply by requiring that the 8th grade tests be given in Title I schools, but making those tests voluntary in other schools. State officials still plan to require that all schools administer the tests in the 3rd and 5th grades.

Ms. Neuman said the state's plan would comply with federal law.

Eight of the state's 24 countywide districts receive Title I money for their middle schools. The 130,000-student Montgomery County school system, the state's largest district and one of the biggest critics of the testing program, does not take Title I money for middle schools and will not give the state test to 8th graders this year, said Reginald M. Felton, the president of the school board in the suburban Washington county.

—David J. Hoff

Alanis Named Texas Commissioner

Texas' first Hispanic education commissioner was to be sworn in this week, after a state senator relented and allowed Gov. Rick Perry's nominee to proceed without further complaints.

Felipe T. Alanis, the University of Texas System's assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs, is replacing James E. Nelson as head of the state education agency. The Republican governor nominated Mr. Alanis on March 6.

Since then, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat who represents the part of Austin where the nominee lives, had contended the governor should have consulted him before proceeding. The senator reportedly met with Mr. Alanis last week and proclaimed him fit for duty.

Mr. Alanis, who is 53 and a former Texas deputy education commissioner, helped institute some of the state's K-12 policy changes that served as a model for parts of President Bush's federal education plan. He also has been a teacher, principal, and superintendent in several Texas districts, including the 8,800-student San Benito school system, and has worked for the Texas Association of School Boards in a policy- development role.

—Alan Richard

N.J. Chief Signals Hike in Pre-K Aid

Even as the state faces a budget shortfall, New Jersey education officials have pledged a significant boost in the amount the state's 30 poorest school districts receive for court-ordered preschool programs.

William L. Librera

Commissioner of Education William L. Librera declared publicly earlier this month that the 30 districts could expect between $100 million and $140 million more during the 2002-03 school year. The money would represent an increase of 42 percent to 58 percent above the $240 million those districts are currently receiving to launch and operate preschools.

In a series of rulings in a school finance case known as Abbott v. Burke, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the state's poorest districts must receive large amounts of extra aid if student achievement is to rival that of wealthier districts. The court ordered the state to finance universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in the so-called "Abbott districts." Thousands of children are being served by those programs, but thousands more who qualify are not being served.

Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat who took office in January, was expected to submit his fiscal 2003 budget to lawmakers this week. He has so far advised school districts to expect no increases in state aid because of a projected $6 billion budget deficit, said Richard Vespucci, a state education department spokesman. Despite that shortfall, the McGreevey administration is "committed to carrying out the court's directives," Mr. Vespucci said.

—Catherine Gewertz

Swift Exits Mass. Governor's Race

Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift of Massachusetts has announced her withdrawal from the governor's race.

Ms. Swift, who has been an outspoken supporter of the state's controversial K-12 accountability exams and early-childhood programs, made her decision public at a March 19 news conference.

"I believe that this is in the best interest of our state," she said, "as it will allow the Republican Party's best chances of holding the governor's office in November."

The briefing came just hours before businessman Mitt Romney, who was president of the organizing committee for this year's Winter Olympics, announced his primary challenge against her.

A poll in the Boston Herald newspaper of 401 likely GOP primary voters showed Mr. Romney far ahead of Ms. Swift, 75 percent to 12 percent.

Ms. Swift, 37, is the youngest governor in the country. Elected lieutenant governor in 1998, she became acting governor last year when Gov. Paul Cellucci was named by President Bush as the U.S. ambassador to Canada.

—John Gehring

Vol. 21, Issue 28, Page 21

Published in Print: March 27, 2002, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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