News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Milwaukee Voucher Program Threatened by Budget Rift

A bill approved by the Wisconsin Senate would ultimately kill the Milwaukee tuition-voucher program, its administrators say.

The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 17-16 earlier this month to cut $23 million for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program as part of a budget-repair bill aimed at closing a $1.1 billion spending gap. The deficit is the largest in Wisconsin history and comes as the state is about to enter the second year of a biennial budget.

The money represents one-third of the program's funding for fiscal 2002, lawmakers said. Individual vouchers would be slashed from $5,784 this year for students in grades K-6 to $2,000 next year and to $3,000 for high school students.

The following year, those stipends would be cut in half for students in grades K-8 and by $1,500 for high school students.

The decade-old effort currently provides vouchers for more than 10,000 students from low-income families to attend private schools. The district and families now pay two-thirds of the program's costs.

"These low-income families would not be able to sustain their child's participation in the program without the funding," said John W. Krauss, a spokesman for the state education department.

The Senate bill has been sent to a conference committee, where members of both legislative chambers will draw up a compromise plan. The budget process is supposed to wrap up by July.

Spokesmen for the Republican-dominated Assembly, the legislature's lower house, and Republican Gov. Scott McCallum have vowed to protect the voucher program, but Mr. Krauss said that had not been made clear to the education department.

—Julie Blair

Ariz. Judge: Do More for English Learners

A federal judge has ruled once again that Arizona must do more to meet the needs of English-language learners in schools throughout the state.

Although the state recently doubled its spending on the instruction of students with limited English proficiency to comply with a court order, U.S. District Judge Alfred Marquez issued a ruling March 8 that calls for the legislature to conduct a cost study by next January and then to set new, specific standards for English-learner programs.

The court had ruled in January 2000 in Flores v. Arizona that the amount of money the state allocated for programs serving students learning English as a second language was inadequate. In October of that year, Judge Marquez ordered the state department of education to determine what should be spent, and he asked the state to increase funding in a timely manner.

In response, the legislature passed and Gov. Jane Dee Hull signed a bill that commits the state to spend $340 next school year for each child classified as an English-learner, an increase of $170 per pupil. The bill included money for student tutoring, instructional materials, and teacher training. The plan, however, was deemed inadequate by the court last month.

State schools Superintendent Jaime Molera said last week that he would likely appeal the ruling.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Federal Court Upholds N.H. Bond Vote Law

A New Hampshire law that makes it easier for towns to approve school bonds has withstood the scrutiny of a federal appeals court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, ruled March 19 against residents who had challenged the state law, which lowered the total percentage of votes needed to approve school bonds.

Under the measure, passed in 1999, a town can approve school bonds with favorable votes from three- fifths, or 60 percent, of the residents voting, instead of 66 percent, or two- thirds, as had been required. The lawsuit, George M. Walker v. Exeter Region Cooperative School District, was brought by five residents of New Hampshire towns that had passed bonds by majorities of more than 60 percent, but less than 66 percent.

The residents said the new law violated their rights under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by applying different weights to the votes of similarly situated voters. The law stipulated that towns could still use the two-thirds requirement if passing bonds in a town-meeting format.

A lower court had dismissed the lawsuit without ruling on the merits of the case.

Several towns' school construction projects have remained in limbo while the case makes its way through the courts.

—Joetta L. Sack

Calif. Nearing Biggest-Ever Bond Measure

California voters will be asked to approve the two largest education bond issues in the state's history in two upcoming statewide elections. As of late last week, Gov. Gray Davis planned to sign legislation that would place initiatives on the ballot in November of this year and November 2004 that together would authorize the sale of bonds providing $25.35 billion for schools. The proposed bond issues, which would total $13.05 billion in 2002 and $12.3 billion in 2004, would pay for a wide range of capital projects for both K-12 and higher education, including new schools in some of the state's most crowded school districts.

The Democratic governor issued a statement praising the legislature's action. "This vote is historic. And, believe me, we need it," he said.

"This will improve schools, modernize schools, build new schools, and put California's hard-working men and women back to work," Gov. Davis added.

—Joetta L. Sack

Colo. Court Finds Bilingual 'Title' Vague

A proposed constitutional amendment that would virtually ban bilingual education in Colorado public schools must have clearer ballot language before it can be placed before voters in November, the state's highest court ruled last week.

The Colorado Supreme Court held unanimously on April 8 that the ballot initiative, modeled on a successful 1998 California measure that limited bilingual education in that state, does not violate a requirement that such measures involve only a single subject.

But the court held that the proposed "title" to the measure, which includes a summary that voters see on their ballots, does not make clear that bilingual education would be virtually eliminated "as a viable parental and school district option."

Like California's measure, the Colorado initiative would authorize a parental-waiver process to keep bilingual programs in a school. But the court said the proposed ballot language does not make clear to voters that it would be difficult for schools to receive such waivers.

The court directed the state Title Board, which handles ballot initiatives, to try to come up with more understandable ballot language. English for the Children of Colorado, the Denver group sponsoring the initiative, indicated it would work with the Title Board to resolve the issue.

The title language must be settled before the group can begin to gather the roughly 80,000 signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot.

—Mark Walsh

Vol. 21, Issue 31, Page 23

Published in Print: April 17, 2002, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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