News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Texas Commissioner To Name 'Dropout Czar'

Texas' new schools chief said he plans to appoint a "dropout czar" to try to help the state improve its efforts to keep more students in public schools through graduation.

Felipe T. Alanis

State Commissioner of Education Felipe T. Alanis wants to create a new position to oversee several dropout-prevention programs that are currently scattered among several different offices within the Texas Education Agency, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the department.

The goal is to reduce the number of dropouts in Texas schools, where state officials believe 1.3 percent of students—about 24,000 pupils—in 7th through 12th grades abandon school prematurely each year, Ms. Graves Ratcliffe said.

Other estimates of the dropout problem in Texas, however, paint a more discouraging picture. A study completed last year by Just for the Kids Inc., a nonprofit education group based in Austin, Texas, estimated that 20 percent of students who started Texas high schools in 1994 did not graduate within five years, in research prepared for the Dallas Morning News.

Roughly 1.9 million students are enrolled in Texas' public schools in grades 7-12, about 220,000 of whom are seniors in high school, according to state data.

"It's a problem that's increasingly common within the state," Ms. Ratcliffe said of the dropout issue. "When you're talking about 24,000 kids, there are just so many lives that are going to be impacted by that."

Mr. Alanis, who began as commissioner on April 1, has not said when the new dropout czar would be appointed, though Ms. Ratcliffe said it could happen by this summer. The person who takes the role could be chosen from either inside or outside the education agency, she added.

—Sean Cavanagh

Plan to Abolish Hawaii Board Dies

A last-minute legislative stalemate means that Hawaii voters won't be deciding in the general election in November whether to do away with their elected state school board.

Although the House of Representatives had endorsed its own plan for overhauling the governance structure of the statewide school system, House members of a conference committee with the Senate opted for the Senate plan, which would have replaced the board with seven locally elected district boards.

But the plan did not have enough support to make it out of the conference committee, missing the April 18 deadline for proposed constitutional amendments.

The proposal in the House would have replaced the board with 15 locally elected district boards and given the governor the authority to appoint the state superintendent.

Proponents of changing the way the district is run say the current 13-member board does not give citizens and schools enough representation.

Opponents of the plans said the proposed changes would not guarantee improved student achievement.

—Linda Jacobson

State, Schools to Pay Ohio Mediator

Howard S. Bellman will be paid almost $50,000 for his failed effort to negotiate a resolution to Ohio's 11-year-old school funding dispute.

Mr. Bellman, a lawyer, gave the case back in March to the Ohio Supreme Court, which had hired him as a mediator in December.

In a March 21 letter to the court, Mr. Bellman explained that he was "very sorry" that he "could not achieve the desired end."

Now the parties involved in the lawsuit, the state and the coalition of school districts, must ante up and settle Mr. Bellman's bill— roughly $48,000.

That sum includes Mr. Bellman's $200 hourly rate for three months of discussions along with about $10,000 in expenses.

On April 19, the court ordered that the mediator's hourly fee be split evenly between the two sides in the case. The court will issue a separate order regarding Mr. Bellman's expenses, according to Jay Wuebbold, a court spokesman.

Mr. Wuebbold explained that the arrangements for paying the mediator were spelled out in the court order that named Mr. Bellman as the court's chief negotiator.

Without a compromise, the case known as DeRolph v. State of Ohio is back in the hands of the state supreme court. The state's school funding system has been struck down twice as unconstitutional.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Illinois Requires New Vaccinations

All children entering kindergarten in Illinois next fall will be required to receive vaccinations against chickenpox, or show proof of having contracted the disease previously, under a newly adopted state policy.

The program was recommended by Director John R. Lumpkin of the state department of health, who cited the disease's potentially fatal impact on children, even though its symptoms are normally mild.

"The bottom line is the director came down on the side that this should be a protection for the children of this state," said Tom Schafer, a spokesman for the health department. "It's something we've looked at now in excess of two years."

Illinois is the 34th state in the country to mandate chickenpox vaccinations, state health officials said.

The state's requirement was adopted after the Illinois legislature's joint committee on administrative rules voted April 10 not to object to the proposal.

The state's plan drew objections from some parents, however, who said the decision about vaccinations should be left to individual families.

Others questioned whether the immunizations were necessary for a disease that typically leaves children immune to it after they are stricken by it the first time. Illinois mandates that students receive immunizations for eight other diseases.

—Sean Cavanagh

Vol. 21, Issue 33, Page 20

Published in Print: May 1, 2002, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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