News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Civil Rights Groups Challenge Colo. Vouchers

A coalition of civil rights groups filed suit last week to challenge Colorado's new voucher law, saying that it violates the state's constitution.

The law, signed by Republican Gov. Bill Owens last month, will provide state-financed vouchers of up to $5,000 to low-income students in low- performing urban districts to pay for tuition at religious or other private schools. Up to 20,000 students will be eligible for the program, which is slated to start in the fall of 2004. ("Gov. Owens Pledges to Sign Colorado Voucher Bill," April 9, 2003.)

Filed in a state district court in Denver, the lawsuit homes in on a provision in the state constitution that says public money cannot be used to support schools controlled by churches or sectarian groups.

"The language in the Colorado Constitution is clear and unequivocal," said Ralph Neas, the president of the Washington-based People for the American Way Foundation, one of the groups joining the lawsuit, in a written statement.

The Institute for Justice, a group that advocates school choice, has vowed to defend the law. "We will not allow teachers' unions and their allies to thwart meaningful education reform," Chip Mellor, the president and general counsel of the Washington-based group, said in a statement.

—Joetta L. Sack

Illinois Grants In-State Tuition To Illegal Immigrants

Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, has signed legislation that enables undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition rates at state public universities.

To be eligible, an immigrant must have attended an Illinois high school for at least three years and have graduated in the state. Previously, only two of the state's nine public universities permitted undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition, which typically is one-half or one-third the rates that out-of-state students are charged.

At least 3,000 high school graduates are expected to benefit from the new law, which takes effect this coming school year. States that already give in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants include Texas, California, and Utah ("States Debate In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students," April 16, 2003.) Similar legislation is pending in at least 10 other states, said an analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican, vetoed a similar bill last week.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Minnesota Replaces State Learning Standards

The Minnesota legislature ended years of political debate last week when it voted to eliminate the state's Profile of Learning program and replace it with new academic standards. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the repeal bill May 21.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty

The legislation paves the way for new statewide standards—the Minnesota Academic Standards—in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and the arts.

New standards in math and language arts will be put in place this coming fall, with the standards for science and social studies to follow in 2004. Unlike the Profile of Learning, which required students to demonstrate through projects and portfolios what they had learned, the new standards will be based on specific facts and concepts the state wants students to know by the end of each grade. State tests that will be aligned with the standards are being developed.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Four States to Join Middle Schools Project

Four states have been picked to participate in a national program that seeks to identify and replicate exemplary middle schools.

Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, and Virginia have been selected to implement the "Schools to Watch" program, which run by the Newton, Mass.-based National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. They join California, North Carolina, and Georgia, which were chosen last year.

The forum, which is an alliance of educators, national organizations, researchers, and others, picked the four new states following a competitive selection process. Officials in those states will be trained in how to identify high-performing middle schools and how to use them as models for other educators.

—Robert C. Johnston

Federal Judge Upholds Mass. Graduation Policy

U.S. District Judge Michael A. Posner has denied a motion for a temporary restraining order, filed on behalf of 10 Massachusetts students earlier this month, that would have allowed the students to graduate without passing the state graduation exam that is part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

In a statement, Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll praised the ruling: "[T]he judge has ... done his part to uphold the state's fair and reasonable graduation requirement."

In court, however, the students' attorney, Roger L. Rice, argued that the MCAS, which is required for high school graduation for the first time this year, is invalid because it doesn't reflect what is taught in the classroom and many of his clients were unprepared.

"Many of these schools have been determined to be critically low-performing," he said. "That says to us that the adults who run the school have not done their job."

But Heidi B. Perlman, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said students have had numerous opportunities to pass the test. The state, which has approved more than 1,000 appeals by students, offers the graduation exam beginning in 10th grade. Students can retake the test up to four times and are given the opportunity to receive online and one-on-one tutoring.

As of late last week, a decision on whether to appeal the ruling had not been made, Mr. Rice said.

—Marianne D. Hurst

Governors' Highway Group Part of Driver Education Push

Teenagers will get tips on driving safety as part of a program launched this month by the Ford Motor Co., the Governors Highway Safety Association, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Every high school in the nation will receive teacher's guides, videotapes, and other materials being distributed as part of the "Real World Driver" effort. An inter-active Web site,, has also been launched with information on driving skills.

The traffic-safety agency reports that more than 6,000 teenagers die each year from injuries sustained in car crashes, making auto accidents the leading cause of death for teenagers.

Kathryn Swanson, the chairwoman of the Washington-based governors' safety group, said in a statement that she hopes the program will "help states raise awareness of the teen-driving issues as they work to strengthen their graduated driver's license laws," or laws that phase in the periods when young drivers can legally drive.

—Robert C. Johnston

Okla. Attorney General Urges Policies on Concession Profits

School boards in Oklahoma should develop policies that clearly outline how proceeds from contracts with soft drink companies can be used, state Attorney General W. A. Drew Edmondson said in a recent opinion.

The nonbinding opinion was requested by State Auditor Jeff A. McMahan, following a 3-year-old controversy over how Oklahoma school administrators use funds earned from soft drink sales.

Three years ago, the state auditor's office found that the 19,000-student Putnam City School District earned $3 million from a soft drink contract, some of which was used by the district's former superintendent to take community members to dinner, said Mr. McMahan.

Mr. McMahan, who was elected to his position last November, said that requiring administrators to put all soft drink proceeds into districts' general funds, instead of their activity funds, would provide "more accountability."

—Michelle Galley

Vol. 22, Issue 38, Page 16

Published in Print: May 28, 2003, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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