News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Utah Nixes Tax Credits, But Other Changes Pass

Utah's legislature passed a multifaceted package of education policy changes last week, after stripping the measure of a controversial proposal to allow tax credits for private school tuition.

The measure was quickly approved on the legislature's last day, March 5. It would require students to demonstrate competency before progressing to another grade, and would put in place new graduation requirements. It also would set up new systems for professionals from outside education to become certified teachers, and would allow schools more flexibility in following union rules in hiring teachers and other staff members.

The package would be paid for by a three-year, $97 million increase in income taxes. Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican, was reviewing the bill last week. He had threatened to veto the legislation if the tuition- tax-credit language was included.

The tax-credit plan would have provided annual income-tax credits of $2,132 to offset the cost of private school tuition, and allowed credits for donors that made contributions to scholarship funds for private schooling. The plan died after supporters determined they did not have enough votes in the House.

The tax-credit proposal had passed the Senate, but school administrators and the state teachers' union lobbied hard against it. Supporters said they would bring the proposal back next year.

—Joetta L. Sack

90 Percent of Mass. Seniors Have Passed Graduation Test

Ninety percent of Massachusetts students in the class of 2003 now have passed the English and math sections of the state test required for graduation starting this year, state officials announced last week.

The 6,058 seniors who have not yet passed will have another chance to take the exams in May and again this summer after participating in extra-help programs, said Gov. Mitt Romney in releasing the test results for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

"I have a message for those students who have not yet passed the MCAS," he said. "We will not give up on you, and you should not give up on yourself."

But critics noted that nearly half those who failed were members of minority groups. While 94 percent of white students in the class of 2003 have passed both sections of the test, that's true for only 75 percent of black and 70 percent of Hispanic youngsters. The latest results reflect a retest given in December to roughly 10,500 high school seniors who had yet to pass the 10th grade exam.

Several district superintendents said the passing rates did not reflect reality because state officials used outdated enrollment counts. The state figures are based on 12th grade enrollment data from Oct. 1 of last year. Since then, the education department has said certain groups of students—such as seniors in adult education programs—don't have to pass the MCAS exams.

Gov. Romney, a Republican, said his budget calls for $53 million in MCAS remediation funds, including $3 million for community colleges to devise pathways for students who do not pass the MCAS by the end of high school.

—Lynn Olson

Poll Finds Some N.J. Parents Feel Unwelcome in Schools

Urban and minority parents in New Jersey are far more likely to feel unwelcome in their children's schools than suburban parents in the state, a survey shows.

The study of attitudes about parental involvement in the state's schools, released Feb. 26, shows that 20 percent of suburban parents in New Jersey feel unwelcome in their children's schools, compared with 44 percent of urban parents.

Three-quarters of parents said they are often asked to do menial tasks when volunteering at school and would like to have more meaningful involvement.

When asked if they would help in local schools, 91 percent of respondents from minority groups said they would, compared with 77 percent of white respondents. Eighty-nine percent of those whose primary language is not English said they would like to volunteer, compared with 78 percent of native English-speakers.

The telephone poll of 600 New Jersey adults, conducted late last summer, was released by New Jersey United for Higher School Standards, an advocacy group of business and education leaders. The margin of error for its overall sample is 4 percentage points.

—Catherine Gewertz

Former Ohio Facilities Chief Criticized for Accepting Gifts

The former head of Ohio's school construction commission accepted gifts from contractors and approved an improper building contract, according to a report filed by the state's inspector general.

But the seven-month investigation of the three-member Ohio Facilities Commission found no evidence that its former executive director, Randall A. Fischer, had steered contracts or engaged in other criminal wrongdoing.

Inspector General Thomas P. Charles referred his findings to the Ohio Ethics Commission because Mr. Fischer filed three years of financial-disclosure statements late and retroactively reported gifts he had received.

The report criticizes Mr. Fischer for fostering an atmosphere that it contends allowed commission employees to accept meals, tickets to sporting events, gifts, and golf outings from people doing business with the commission.

Charles R. Saxbe, Mr. Fischer's lawyer, said the report essentially clears his client of many allegations. "There is absolutely no evidence of any favoritism or contract steering," Mr. Saxbe said last week.

Mr. Fischer, who announced his resignation last summer after the inspector general launched the investigation, has said he has done nothing wrong. He repaid contractors for free rounds of golf.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Maryland Grants Districts Leeway In Making Up for Snow Days

Maryland's state board of education will allow school districts to shorten the academic year because of the number of cancellations for snow.

The board voted unanimously on Feb. 25 to give state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick the authority to waive the state's law requiring at least 180 days of school.

The Garrett County school board in the state's northwestern corner will be eligible to shorten its year by three days. School districts in the rest of the state will be allowed to cut out two days.

Districts around the state have missed 10 or more days because of the unusually high number of snowstorms in the state, including a Presidents' Day storm that shut down most schools for a week.

Even with waivers, many districts will need to make up three to five days, according to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education. Strategies include lengthening the school day or year, scheduling school on holidays, shortening spring break, and canceling planned professional-development days.

When considering applications for waivers, Ms. Grasmick "wants to make sure they're doing their level best to keep as many instructional days as possible," Mr. Reinhard said.

—David J. Hoff

Conn. Desegregation Plan Gets Nod From Legislators

A settlement plan in Connecticut's 14-year-old school desegregation lawsuit now needs just one more approval: that of the judge overseeing the case.

On Feb. 25, the state House voted 87-60 in favor of the proposed agreement announced in January by state officials and the plaintiffs in the case known as Sheff v. O'Neill. ("Deal Announced to Desegregate Hartford Schools," Jan. 29, 2003.)

The plan calls for opening, over the next four years, eight new Hartford-area magnet schools that would seek to reduce racial isolation by drawing students from throughout the region.

Lawmakers approved the proposal despite concerns by some about the price tag: $45 million in operating funds, plus an estimated $90 million for construction. Late last month, Connecticut enacted a package of tax increases and spending cuts to fill a $650 million deficit in its current budget of about $13 billion.

Approval by the Senate of the Sheff settlement is not required. The two sides in the case are moving ahead with the last step by filing papers seeking the assent of Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma.

—Jeff Archer

Calif. Cartoon Perceived As Offensive to Latinos

EdFund, an arm of the California Student Aid Commission, is spending $12,000 to reprint a newsletter about college financial aid after some people found a cartoon in the original printing to be offensive.

In its publication for college-bound high school students, "Life 101," an article about stretching one's dollars in college is illustrated with a cartoon of a girl wearing a mini-sombrero and reading an economics textbook while working at "Taco Town."

EdFund didn't intend to make the girl in the cartoon look Latina, according to Becky Stilling, the president of EdFund. The girl has red hair and peach-colored skin in the publication. But when EdFund reproduced the cartoon in black and white on plastic bags distributed to students, "she looked dark-complected," Ms. Stilling said.

The director of an outreach program for students in northern California had complained to EdFund. "My understanding of her complaint was that the image stereotyped Latino students as working for low wages and struggling in a fast-food kind of job," said Ms. Stilling.

Ms. Stilling said she pulled the cartoon because she didn't want anyone to think that EdFund didn't respect ethnic diversity. She said EdFund plans to establish a diverse editorial board to preview future EdFund materials.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 22, Issue 26, Page 21

Published in Print: March 12, 2003, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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