News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
Mich. Commission Urges More Charter Schools
A commission appointed by Michigan lawmakers has recommended that the state allow more charter schools, and impose more restrictions on them.
The commission was formed in October after legislators deadlocked over whether to raise the cap on the number of the independent public schools that can be authorized by universities. The current limit is 150, which was reached three years ago. Since then Republican Gov. John Engler has been pushing to increase that number; all but about 40 of the state's nearly 190 charters are held by universities.
A coalition of Democratic and a few Republican lawmakers have repeatedly blocked that effort.
The eight-member commission, which the governor helped appoint, also recommended allowing an additional 130 charter schools authorized by universities over the next five years, with more than half of the new slots reserved for schools largely serving children living in poverty or children with other special needs.
The commission also recommended annual testing for grades 3-8 starting in the next school year; a stronger oversight role for the state schools superintendent; and new regulations on possible conflicts of interest, student admission, and the role of educational management companies.
Neither charter school supporters nor opponents were entirely happy with the recommendations. State schools Superintendent Thomas D. Watkins called instead for allowing just a few more charter schools while a broad study is conducted. Legislative action could be taken on the recommendations by summer.
ESL Complaint in Pa. Resolved
The office for civil rights of the U.S. Department of Education has resolved a complaint alleging that the Pennsylvania Department of Education had been breaking federal law by not requiring teachers of English as a second language to be certified in the subject. ("OCR Ponders ESL Teacher Certification in Pa.," Dec. 13, 2000.)
In an April 12 letter, the OCR told the Education Law Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that filed the complaint in October 2000, that it has been informed in writing by the department of its new commitments to train ESL teachers. The letter added that the federal agency considers the steps sufficient. The OCR didn't determine that the department had in fact violated federal law.
The department of education has agreed to spell out standards for ESL teachers and provide "a letter of completion" for teachers who complete the ESL training. The department also will require training in ESL for all teachers of the subject. Previously, it simply recommended such training.
The state department, however, has decided not to establish a state certification program for ESL, as the Education Law Center requested in the complaint.
Len Rieser, the co-director of the center, said his organization filed the complaint to try to achieve equality between the preparation of teachers for ESL and other teachers. He said the new plan appears to fall short of that goal because it doesn't require ESL training to be provided by a college or university or that ESL teachers be tested in ESL competencies.
—Mary Ann Zehr
NCSL Creates Online Database
The National Conference of State Legislatures has launched a new online database that will allow policymakers, educators, and others to access school finance data from states nationwide.
The Web database allows visitors to query how states pay for K-12 education. Users can obtain information about a particular state's overall education finance system, or learn about specific categories of funding, such as special education. Such categories can also be compared across states. Officials at the Denver-based organization say the new site will help policymakers learn about the ways other states have handled school finance issues.
"Legislators and legislative staff need to know what options are available when considering education finance policies," Steve Smith, an NCSL education policy specialist, said in a statement. "Our goal was to provide the information in an easy-to-understand format."
The database is available at www.ncsl.org/programs/educ/ed_finance/intro.htm.
Va. Governor Reappoints State Chief
Virginia's new Democratic chief executive, Gov. Mark R. Warner, has reappointed state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jo Lynne DeMary, who was initially named by Mr. Warner's Republican predecessor.
Ms. DeMary, who was appointed state superintendent in June 2000 by then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III, is a former school administrator and teacher in Henrico County, Va., outside Richmond. She has helped guide Virginia education during an era of intense focus on state standards and testing.
In announcing his decision on April 3, Mr. Warner cited a desire for continuity.
"At a time when new testing and accountability mandates are coming from Washington, Dr. DeMary will provide stable leadership and keep Virginia ahead of the curve on education reform," said Gov. Warner, who took office in January.
S.C. School Finance Trial Delayed
The latest trial for South Carolina's school finance lawsuit has been delayed by about a year.
Lawyers for both sides in Abbeville County v. State of South Carolina requested the delay to allow more time for research, said Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr., who is presiding over the case. The lawyers had wanted to delay the trial until next fall, but court calendars were full until the spring for what is expected to be a lengthy trial, Mr. Cooper said.
Judge Cooper threw out the case in 1996, but the state supreme court overturned part of his ruling in 1999, sending the case back to his court. ("Supreme Court in S.C. Sets Stage for Debate on School 'Adequacy,'" May 5, 1999.)
Some 37 of the state's 80-plus school districts sued the state asking for more adequate education funding, especially for poor, rural counties that have little ability to raise money on their own.
The case will be heard in the town of Bishopville, in rural Lee County, where students attended high school in a condemned building at the time the lawsuit was filed there. Since then, the county has approved and built a new, consolidated high school.
Texas School Finance System Upheld
A Texas appeals court has upheld a lower-court ruling that dismissed a case brought by four districts against the state claiming that Texas' school finance system is unconstitutional.
In their lawsuit, the West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District, the Coppell Independent School District, the La Porte Independent School District, and the Port Neches-Groves Independent School District contended that the "Robin Hood" finance system is really an unconstitutional statewide property tax because it places a cap of $1.50 per $100 of property value on the amount districts can levy.
The system also forces property-wealthy districts to share their tax revenues with districts that are property-poor.
A state district court in Austin ruled last year that districts can provide a state-accredited education while taxing at that rate. The Texas Court of Appeals, Third District, in Austin upheld that decision on April 11.
George Bramblett, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, could not be reached for comment, but he was quoted in news reports as saying that the latest decision would be appealed.
Vol. 21, Issue 32, Page 29