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June 10, 2014 7 min read
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| NEWS | The School Law Blog

Supreme Court’s Treaty Ruling Allays Conservative Groups’ Concerns

Groups that had expressed concerns that a broad view of the constitutional treaty power could give the federal government greater authority over education are breathing a little easier after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving a chemical-weapons treaty.

The court last week, in Bond v. United States, unanimously rejected the federal chemical-weapons prosecution of a woman who had tried to poison her husband’s paramour, though the justices split over their rationales.

Conservative groups viewed the prosecution of Carol Anne Bond under a federal law implementing an international chemical-weapons treaty as an example of federal overreach into an area of traditional state concern. (In the case of Bond, a Pennsylvania microbiologist, that means simple criminal law.)

The groups—the Home School Legal Defense Association, based in Purcellville, Va., along with the Center for Individual Rights and the American Center for Law and Justice, both in Washington—detailed their concerns in briefs to the court. They argued that if the federal government had unfettered power to implement international treaties, that could lead to federal dictates on the length of compulsory education, adequate spending, teacher education, and the rights of children, all of which are the subject of international treaties.

In the court’s decision, six justices held that the federal chemical-weapons statute does not cover Bond’s “simple assault” case.

“The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.

Mark Walsh

| NEWS | Time and Learning Blog

Fla. Expands Extra-Hour Reading Into More Low-Performing SchoolsM

Florida is expanding a measure that requires a longer academic day in the state’s lowest-performing public elementary schools. The mandate, which originally roped in 100 elementary schools based on state reading tests, will now reach 300 schools.

The state first established the requirement under legislation approved in 2012. As originally designed, the 100 public elementary schools with the lowest reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, had to extend their day by an hour and use that time for reading instruction. But this year’s state budget, signed last week by Gov. Rick Scott, expands the requirement to reach the 300 lowest-performing schools, effective next fall.

State lawmakers were apparently keen to expand the program because the extra hour seems to have helped students become better readers. Seventy-three schools saw reading scores go up after just one year with the extra hour, and 70 moved off the lowest-100 list altogether.

Thirty schools that got off the lowest-100 list decided the extra hour was valuable enough to keep it the following year.

Samantha Stainburn

| NEWS | District Dossier Blog

Is Autonomy for All Boston Schools The Next Wave of Reform?

Boston’s school system—for decades the steady-as-she-goes urban model of reform—is going through quite a period of change and turmoil.

There’s a new mayor in charge of the city’s schools. The mayorally appointed school board is conducting a search for a new superintendent to replace Carol Johnson, who retired nearly a year ago. And it just came to light in a tough external review that the district’s much-admired academic progress in recent years is in jeopardy of being scuttled by, among other forces, discord and dysfunction in the central office.

Now, a new report is offering up a raft of recommendations that essentially call for freeing all the city’s schools from directives of the central office and union contracts to give them charter-like autonomy when it comes to curriculum, budgeting, and hiring. John McDonough, the district’s interim superintendent, who has been weighing whether to give more independence to all schools in the system, asked for the report, which was prepared by two Boston-area nonprofits and paid for by the Boston Foundation.

The report found that, collectively, the autonomous schools in the city were more popular with parents than typical district schools, and that many of them were better able to make decisions about deploying resources and staff members in a way that best met the needs of students.

Lesli A. Maxwell

| NEWS | State EdWatch Blog

California Schools Chief Torlakson Will Face Marshall Tuck in Runoff

The race for state schools chief in California is headed to a run-off, with incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck now set to face each other again in the Nov. 4 general election.

Mr. Torlakson and Mr. Tuck were the top two vote-getters out of the three superintendent candidates on the June 3 ballot. But Mr. Torlakson, despite receiving nearly 47 percent of the vote, needed to get a majority in order to avoid the run-off. Mr. Tuck, a former charter school executive who is backed by advocacy groups and others seeking significant changes to K-12 policy and a reduction in the political power of teachers’ unions, came in second with a little less than 29 percent of the vote. Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher who stressed her opposition to the Common Core State Standards in her campaign, came in third with just over 24 percent.

Statistically at least, the relatively strong performance of Ms. Gutierrez, who received comparatively little media attention as the anti-common-core candidate in the race, may have hurt the incumbent’s bid to break the 50 percent mark. In 2010, by contrast, when Mr. Torlakson was first elected, there were 12 candidates in the primary election in California.

Mr. Tuck’s campaign had clearly played the expectations game to focus on a run-off, rather than an outright victory on June 3. In a May 30 press release, his campaign said it was “well poised” to force a run-off, “despite [the] onslaught of false attack ads and the millions [of dollars] of spending from Sacramento unions being poured into the race” against him.

Between what the Tuck and Torlakson campaigns have raised, as well as independent expenditures on their behalf, the election has involved millions of dollars already. Dollars aside, one key question is whether the political ground game and get-out-the-vote efforts of the California teachers’ unions will prove decisive.

Here’s another factor: the gubernatorial race, in which Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, faces Republican nominee Neel Kashkari, a former assistant U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. It’s not clear that the governor’s race will be the kind of closely-fought contest that will generate broad political interest and bring attention to other elections—including the state superintendent’s contest.

Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | District Dossier Blog

GAO Finds District-Level Program Cuts Among Fallout From 2013 Sequestration

The investigative arm of Congress has found that across-the-board federal budget cuts last year forced some school districts to cut academic and after-school programs, scale back professional development, and delay physical and technology upgrades.

The Government Accountability Office report released late last month looks at how federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, prepared for and implemented the 2013 sequestration. In particular, it looks at the impact of sequestration on Title I and Impact Aid funding, which made up 72 percent of fiscal 2013 funding for the office of elementary and secondary education before sequestration took effect. Title I aims to help low-income students, and Impact Aid goes to school districts affected by federal activities, including those that enroll a number of students whose parents are on active duty in the armed services, or have a high concentration of students residing on Indian lands.

Sequestration resulted in 5 percent cuts to those programs, according to the report. It found that school districts that relied on such aid were forced to make significant changes. Many were also dealing with the fallout from cuts in state funding from the previous year that had forced them to lay off workers.

The GAO’s review focuses on seven districts that received money from the two programs. For Title I impacts, it looked at districts in Mississippi, Texas, and Ohio. For the effects of Impact Aid, it looked at four districts in Arizona, South Dakota, and Texas.

Denisa R. Superville

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement Blog

Guidance Issued on Access to Records Of Students in Foster-Care System

The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance about access to the education records of foster students, sending a letter to education authorities about the need for increased coordination, and launching a dedicated Web page for foster students.

The guidance issued last week clarifies an amendment to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (commonly known as FERPA) aimed at making it easier for caseworkers, child-welfare agencies, and tribal organizations responsible for the placement and care of children in the foster system to access the education records of those children.

President Barack Obama signed the amendment in January 2013, but a lack of coordination between state and local educational agencies and child-welfare organizations has hampered its impact. Of the approximately 400,000 children in foster care, 260,000 are school aged, 5 to 18, and their education experience is often disrupted by numerous moves.

Lauren Camera

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A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs

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