News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Illinois School Districts Added to 'Watch List'

More school districts in Illinois are spiraling into worse financial shape, according to new state figures.

The state board of education released data last week showing that 156 of the state’s 888 districts are listed on this year’s financial "watch list"—69 districts more than last year.

In addition, fewer school districts this year were found to be in good financial shape when compared with the previous year. Nearly 80 districts dropped off the "financial recognition list," which indicates healthy financial conditions.

The annual list weighs districts’ income against expenses and cash flow. ("Illinois 'Watch List' Snares Rich and Poor Districts," Sept. 3, 2003.)

The state education agency released the list as lawmakers in Springfield debate K-12 school spending and governance.

—Alan Richard

Deadline Extension Granted For N.Y. School Funding Panel

The committee that is assigned to recommend how New York state can comply with a court order to raise school funding has missed its deadline and is continuing to do its work.

The Commission on Education Reform was scheduled to deliver its report on March 1, and Gov. George E. Pataki extended the deadline by two weeks. But the blue-ribbon panel missed that deadline as well.

"It’s a very complex issue," said Jim Denn, a spokesman for the commission, explaining the delay. "The commission is working as quickly as possible."

Mr. Denn did not say when the panel would finish the work.

Mr. Pataki, a Republican, formed the committee to advise him on how the state could comply with last year’s decision by the state’s highest court declaring that the state was inadequately funding New York City schools.

Although the case dealt specifically with New York City, the state’s resolution needs to address funding in all of the New York’s low-income areas. ("Court Orders New York City Funding Shift," July 9, 2003.)

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity—the group that brought the lawsuit on behalf of New York City children—estimates that the state would need to increase school spending by $7 billion, or about 20 percent, in the 2004-05 school year to comply with the court ruling statewide.

—David J. Hoff

California Officials to Audit Charter School Academy

The California state schools superintendent has ordered an audit of the state’s largest charter school operator.

Superintendent Jack O’Connell announced that the state education department would investigate the California Charter Academy, a Victorville, Calif.-based group that runs about 50 charter schools serving some 8,500 students.

A state charter school advisory board requested the audit on March 18, citing concerns over the academy’s finances, and asked whether the district that granted the charter is adequately overseeing the academy and its schools.

Mr. O’Connell’s spokesman, Rick Miller, said that the audit would investigate several issues, including complaints over teacher pay and suspicions surrounding the removal of several teachers in the middle of the school year. No completion date has been set for the audit.

Officials from the academy did not return phone calls seeking comment.

—Joetta L. Sack

Hawaii Preschool Program Falls Behind Schedule

Implementation of Hawaii’s Pre-Plus initiative—an early-childhood-education program operated by the state’s department of human services—has fallen behind schedule.

Construction costs on the first 13 of the 26 buildings originally planned are over budget. And Derick Dahilig, a spokesman for the department, said that it’s possible that not all of the second group of 13 buildings will be completed. Officials attribute the delays to the additional building-code requirements for preschool classrooms.

Launched in 2001 by then-Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and originally run by her office, the program received $5 million in 2001 from the legislature. The program was then transferred to the human- services department.

"We’re just trying to catch up with what was given to us," Mr. Dahilig said.

—Linda Jacobson

Maine Judge Upholds Ban On Religious-School Vouchers

A federal judge in Portland, Maine, has dismissed a lawsuit filed by two families who wanted public funds to pay for their children’s tuition at a Roman Catholic high school.

Under a practice known as "tuitioning," Maine school districts pay the tuition of students who attend private schools or out-of-district public schools if the home districts do not have enough schools to serve them. State law bars that tuition from being paid to religious schools, however.

The Minot, Maine, families challenged that law in 2002. They argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that year in Zelman v. Simmons- Harris—upholding the constitutionality of an Ohio law that allows publicly financed vouchers to be used at religious schools by students in Cleveland—had changed the legal landscape for Maine as well. ("Justices Settle Case, Nettle Policy Debate," July 10, 2002.)

U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. upheld a ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk from last year, however, that found that the Supreme Court’s decision allows states to pay tuition for religious schools, but does not require them to do so.

—Robert C. Johnston

Michigan Court Rejects Suit by Teachers’ Union

The Michigan Court of Appeals has rebuffed a lawsuit by the Michigan Education Association against a policy think tank that the union claims misused comments made by the MEA’s president.

The suit, filed by the union in the circuit court for Ingham County in 2002, alleged that the Midland, Mich.-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy had misrepresented a statement made by President Luigi Battaglieri in one of the center’s fund-raising letters.

Mr. Battaglieri had told reporters during a press conference announcing the launch of the union’s Great Lakes Center for Education Practice and Research that despite differences with the Mackinac Center on education policy, "I admire what they have done over the last couple of years. ..."

MEA officials alleged that the Mackinac Center, which promotes privatization and private school choice, was trying to insinuate that Mr. Battaglieri approved of its views on education reform and was misappropriating his likeness and skewing the quote to market a product.

In dismissing the union’s suit on March 18, the state court of appeals, reversing a circuit court ruling, found that the union’s reading of the letter was strained, and that few people with any knowledge of the two organizations would construe the letter to mean that the MEA president supported the Mackinac Center’s work.

"I think that [the complaint by the union] is out of this world," Clark Neily, the senior attorney at the Washington-based Institute for Justice, who represented the Mackinac Center in the case, said last week.

—Marianne D. Hurst

Vol. 23, Issue 29, Page 20

Published in Print: March 31, 2004, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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