News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Florida Voters to Have Say in Classroom Sizes

A push to get a proposal to cap class sizes on the Florida ballot in November can move forward, following a recent review by the state's highest court.

The Florida Supreme Court reviewed the ballot language at the request of state Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth, a Democrat.

In giving the initiative a thumbs-up on April 25, the court considered two questions: Does the measure deal with only one subject, and is it clearly explained?

The measure is supported by a group that calls itself the Coalition to Reduce Class Size. So far, the group has gathered 150,000 signatures. It needs 488,772 valid signatures to qualify for the state ballot.

The initiative seeks to cap the number of pupils in prekindergarten through 3rd grade at 18. The limit would be 22 students per teacher in grades 4-8, and 25 students in grades 9-12.

If approved, the changes would have to be phased in between 2003 and 2010. Opponents, primarily tax-watchdog groups, have argued that the plan would be too expensive and that there is no reasonable cost estimate.

—Robert C. Johnston

Rural Iowa Schools Sue State Over Funding

Frustrated by the demise of proposed legislation to address school funding inequities, rural school districts across Iowa have sued the state.

The Coalition of Common Cents, a group of 160 districts, filed suit last month in the Iowa District Court in Indianola. The coalition has tried to address the issue in the legislature for the past three years.

But the group finally gave up when a bill that would have raised the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent statewide stalled in March and was never brought to a vote.

The coalition wants the sales-tax revenue to be raised statewide. It also wants to see the revenue distributed equally on a per-student basis.

Currently, the local- option sales tax can be increased by 1 percent by local voters. That additional money is used for school construction in those communities.

The rural districts believe the current sales tax unfairly benefits urban areas, said Steven P. Wandro, a lawyer representing the rural schools.

The Iowa attorney general's office declined to comment on the case.

"We're asking the district court to declare the current scheme unconstitutional," Mr. Wandro said. "The sales tax leads to this horrible inequity between retail-rich counties and those that don't have a retail base."

—Karla Scoon Reid

Louisiana Gets 'Moment of Silence' in Schools

Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana has signed bipartisan legislation allowing a brief time for silent prayer or meditation at the start of each public school day.

The measure states that it is not intended to endorse religion or promote religious exercise, and that its implementation must "remain neutral toward religion."

Gov. Mike Foster

The action late last month by Gov. Foster, a Republican, effectively reinstates Louisiana law as it existed before 1999. The legislature first approved time for "silent prayer or meditation" in 1992, but in 1999, it removed the word "silent." Several families challenged the change, and late last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit struck down the law.

Meanwhile, Mr. Foster had vetoed a bill earlier in the month that would have allowed voluntary prayer aloud in Bossier Parish public schools after the local school board said it would not defend the measure against likely legal challenges.

Rep. Jane H. Smith, a Republican and the bill's author, requested the veto, explaining that the school board of the 18,500-student district did not wish to spend its money on court costs, though it supported prayer.

As originally drafted, the state would have paid such costs.

By by the time the measure reached the governor's desk, however, lawmakers had shifted that burden to the Bossier Parish school district.

Joe Cook, the executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was pleased the governor had vetoed the Bossier Parish bill, which Mr. Cook called "blatantly unconstitutional."

Mr. Cook argued that the constitutionality of the moment-of-silence legislation was "questionable."

—Erik W. Robelen

Vol. 21, Issue 34, Page 17

Published in Print: May 8, 2002, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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