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Governor to Give Books To Illinois Toddlers

With help from the entertainer Dolly Parton and a state senator, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich has announced plans to establish a literacy project that would provide all children in the state with access to free books from birth until they turn 5 years old.

The initiative, announced Jan. 11, would provide parents of newborn children with no-cost, age-appropriate books, and then allow them to register to receive up to 12 books per year.

Parents could choose books approved by a book-selection committee.

The literacy project is being dubbed "Dolly Parton's Imagination Libraries," a nod to the assistance the state is receiving from the Dollywood Foundation of Tennessee, an organization founded by the country-singing legend. Ms. Parton launched a similar book giveaway in 1995 in Sevier County, Tenn., where she was born and reared.

Joining Gov. Blagojevich for the announcement was Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, a Democrat.

The governor, also a Democrat, said the program will not require legislative approval. The literacy project will cost the state $26 million in fiscal 2005, if every eligible child participates, the governor estimates.

—Sean Cavanagh

Gov. Bush Announces Plan For Middle School Reading

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last week announced plans aimed at improving reading in his state's middle schools.

The Republican released the draft legislation Jan. 12 during a visit to Carver Middle School in Orlando.

Flanked by state lawmakers and education officials, Mr. Bush proposed that the state install enough full-time reading coaches to work with teachers in 240 middle schools with low reading- test scores.

He also wants legislators to more than double funding for the state's $21 million "Just Read, Florida!" program, and would require districts to produce improvement plans in reading for every student not performing on grade level and for schools with less than 75 percent of students reading on grade level.

The plan would require middle schools to use "research based" reading instruction by the 2008-09 school year.

Florida already provides hundreds of reading coaches in public schools, but most of them work with elementary teachers.

—Alan Richard

Wisconsin Teachers Sue To Close Online School

The Wisconsin Education Association Council has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Northern Ozaukee school district's online charter school, called the Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

The academy is run by the 900-student district in conjunction with K12 Inc., a McLean, Va.-based company led by former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett.

Filed Jan. 7 in Ozaukee County Circuit Court, the suit contends the district is violating state law by enrolling students from outside its boundaries, according to Bruce Meredith, the general counsel for the teachers' union.

According to the National Education Association affiliate, the academy expects to receive about $5,500 from the state for each of the approximately 420 children enrolled. The funds are deducted from the students' home districts.

The suit also charges that because the charter school's students are typically directed by their parents or another adult, a state law requiring public school students be taught by licensed instructors is being violated.

Bill Harbron, the superintendent of Northern Ozaukee schools, said teachers oversee the online instruction and added that Wisconsin allows open enrollment. He said the partnership with K12 gave the district a chance to learn more about individualized instruction "that was too attractive to pass up."

—Robert C. Johnston

Gov. Perry Chooses New Texas Schools Chief

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has tapped Shirley Neeley, the superintendent of the Galena Park Independent School District, to be the state's new commissioner of education.

Ms. Neeley, a 33-year education veteran, has been credited with raising the academic performance of the district outside Houston since she took the helm in 1995.

Eighty percent of the 21,000 students who attend school in the Galena Park district are from minority groups, and 66 percent are from low-income families: Those two groups are traditionally the most at risk for academic failure.

The state's top education post has been vacant since last summer when Felipe Alanis left to pursue other interests. Ms. Neeley will take over from Robert Scott, the state's deputy education commissioner, who served as the interim chief following the departure of Mr. Alanis.

—Michelle Galley

Schwarzenegger Budget Finds Small Hike for Schools

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called his $76 billion state budget proposal a responsible plan that "puts California on a path to recovery."

The fiscal 2005 proposal, released Jan. 9, would slightly increase the state's per-pupil funding for education while cutting state-level education programs. The general fund K-12 education pot would be $30.4 billion—a 2.7 increase over fiscal 2004.

"We also improve the quality of education by how we spend our money," he said in announcing the budget. "My budget will shift more money to local school districts."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell acknowledged that the budget plan was crafted under difficult financial circumstances, and said he was "cautiously optimistic" that it would help schools improve academically.

He warned, though, that the plan would cut funds for beginning-teacher training and professional development, which he said would be needed to help teachers teach to high standards.

The budget plan hinges on passage of a $15 billion, 30-year loan to patch the state's persistent budget deficit. The referendum will go to state voters in March.

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 23, Issue 19, Page 21

Published in Print: January 21, 2004, as News in Brief
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