News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Colo. Board Stops Opening Its Meetings With Prayers

The Colorado state board of education this month dropped its practice of beginning its public meetings with prayers. Instead, the board's eight members will take turns delivering inspirational messages.

The Colorado state board of education this month dropped its practice of beginning its public meetings with prayers. Instead, the board's eight members will take turns delivering inspirational messages.

The new messages may invoke the name of God, but members who want to pray will gather in a separate room before official meetings begin.

Evie Hudak

Evie Hudak, a Democratic board member who is Jewish, had been seeking to end the practice—which typically involved Christian prayers—for some two years, but the board's Republican majority continued it. But last year, the board added an eighth seat, which split it between Democrats and Republicans. The change prompted a review of some board procedures, such as the prayer policy.

Some legal experts believe school board prayers violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against a government establishment of religion. In 1999, a federal appeals court struck down the Cleveland school board's practice of starting meetings with prayers. The three- judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled 2-1 that board meetings often involved students and were more like school activities than the legislative sessions for which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld chaplain led-prayers in the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers.

—Mark Walsh

Former Federal Official Named Minn. Schools Chief

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who took office this month, has picked former U.S. Department of Education official Cheri Pierson Yecke to serve as the commissioner of the state education agency.

Ms. Yecke, a former teacher and secretary of education in Virginia, worked as the director of teacher quality and public school choice in the current Bush administration and focused on the impact of the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

"Bringing change and accountability to Minnesota's education system is imperative," the Republican governor said in announcing the appointment Jan. 16. "Dr. Yecke is a Minnesotan with the experience and ideas to help our schools reach a new level."

Gov. Pawlenty said his appointee would refocus the state agency on raising student achievement. The department's annual budget includes more than $6 billion in state K-12 and early-childhood funding, and the agency also administers more than $700 million in federal aid.

Ms. Yecke may also lead an agency with a dramatically shortened title if the governor succeeds in renaming the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning simply the Minnesota Department of Education.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Suit Says Ky. Offering
Inadequate Education

Parents and students in eight counties have filed a lawsuit claiming that Kentucky has failed to live up to a 1989 state supreme court decision that overhauled the school system statewide.

The suit says the state hasn't provided an "adequate, equal, and substantially uniform education" as required under the nationally watched ruling that ordered the state to start from scratch and build a new education system.

In the years since the decision, Kentucky hasn't provided enough money to pay for schools or distributed it fairly, said Theodore H. Lavit, the lawyer who filed the case Jan. 16 on behalf of parents and students in southern Kentucky.

Mr. Lavit represented the school districts that won the 1989 ruling. In the past year, many school officials from that coalition have again joined to lobby the state for increases in school spending.

The suit names Gov. Paul E. Patton, a Democrat, and leaders of the legislature as defendants. Mr. Patton's office did not respond to calls seeking a comment on the suit.

—David J. Hoff

Calif. High Court to Hear
Case on Free Speech, Safety

The California Supreme Court announced last week that it would review a case that could help define the boundaries between students' right to free speech and administrators' desire to keep schools safe.

The case centers around a San Jose student, named in the case as George T., who wrote in a poem that he could be "the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school." He gave the poem to a fellow student. A teacher notified police, and George T. was arrested and eventually sentenced to a juvenile-detention center for 100 days.

At issue is whether officials of the East Side Union High School District, in San Jose, were too quick to brand the student a danger, and whether his poetry should have been perceived as threatening. The student's lawyer has portrayed George T. as an artist who was merely lonely and expressing thoughts he would never have acted on. District officials argue, however, that they had to take the threat seriously, given incidents of violence at other schools.

The state's Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal, in San Jose, sided last year with the district in a 2-1 decision. The 25,000- student district also won in the initial trial in Santa Clara County Court.

—Joetta L. Sack

N.C. Seeks Reversal
Of Order in Finance Case

North Carolina has asked an appeals court to reverse a lower court's order in the state's 9-year-old school finance lawsuit. The Jan. 13 filing challenges a Wake County Superior Court ruling last year that determined the state was not providing a sound basic education for all of the state's 1.3 million schoolchildren.

In his April 4, 2002, decision, Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. directed the state to provide prekindergarten classes for 4-year-olds considered at risk for academic failure and to do more to ensure that all students have qualified teachers and administrators.

While the state has since established a pre-kindergarten program, the appeal this month questions whether such services are required under the state constitution.

In a brief submitted to the state Court of Appeals, Attorney General Roy Cooper also challenges Judge Manning's use of state test results as the measure for determining whether a student has received the education required by state law.

The lawsuit, which was brought by five of the state's poorest rural districts in 1994, charged that North Carolina was not providing adequate educational resources for disadvantaged children. A group of urban districts later joined the case, saying that they, too, were being underfunded.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Univ. of Texas Officials
Seek to Set Tuition Rates

Officials of the University of Texas system are asking state legislators for the right to set their own tuition rates, while vowing to guarantee financial aid for low-income students.

The system's chancellor, Mark Yudof, has endorsed the idea of letting schools in his nine-campus network set their own rates. Costs vary for different campuses, though average yearly tuition and fees at UT's Austin campus averaged $5,340 in the current school year for state residents. The UT system is one of six public university systems in Texas, which together include two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Like many public institutions nationwide, the University of Texas has been hurt by rising costs and inadequate state aid, system officials say.

If UT gained tuition-setting authority, the system would cover all tuition and fees for students from families earning less than the state's median annual income of about $40,000, system spokesman Monty Jones said.

—Sean Cavanagh

Vol. 22, Issue 20, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: January 29, 2003, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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