News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

August 08, 2001 8 min read
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Wash. Teachers’ Union Fined
For Its Spending on Politics

A superior court in Washington state fined the 70,000-member Washington Education Association $400,000 last week for illegal financing of political campaigns.

Judge Gary Tabor found that the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, had violated a state public-disclosure law mandating that unions ask nonmembers’ permission to use their fees for political purposes. About 3,000 people pay fees to the WEA for indirectly representing them in collective-bargaining matters but do not belong to the union, the WEA says.

The union will appeal the ruling, said Debra Carnes, a WEA spokeswoman. The WEA “never intentionally used nonmember fees for political purposes,” a union statement said.

It said the union holds all fees paid by nonmembers in separate accounts to avoid mingling the funding. According to the WEA, about 3 percent of union money goes toward political purposes.

The case stems from a complaint filed by the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative organization that has long challenged the WEA’s handling of its political expenditures. The state attorney general prosecuted the case in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia, the state capital.

“WEA officials are used to breaking the law and having their way with teachers’ paychecks because they think no one is big enough to stop them,” Lynn Harsh, the executive director of the foundation, charged in a statement. “Judge Tabor just sent those union officials an expensive reminder that they are not above the law.”

In 1998, the union paid a penalty after admitting to having committed what it said were unintentional violations of campaign-finance laws. (“Wash. Union Fined, Agrees To Give Refunds,” March 11, 1998.)

—Julie Blair

Vallas Running for Illinois Governor

Paul G. Vallas, the former chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, announced last week that he is running for governor of Illinois.

Mr. Vallas, a 48-year-old Democrat, garnered national attention after being handpicked by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in June 1995 to run the city’s schools, following a state-brokered mayoral takeover of the system. He served as the head of the 430,000-student district until June of this year. (“Chicago Schools’ Chief Executive Will Step Down,” June 13, 2001.)

He will join what is expected to be a field of six major candidates in the 2002 governor’s race. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, has not said whether he intends to seek re- election.

In announcing his candidacy on July 30, Mr. Vallas cited his experience in state and local government, and vowed that improving the state’s schools would be among his top goals if elected.

“School districts must have the resources they need to educate all children in classrooms designed to meet the needs of the 21st century,” he said.

—Mark Stricherz

Finance Case Dismissed in Texas

A state judge has upheld the Texas school finance law that forces property-wealthy districts to give money to property-poor ones.

The ruling last month came in response to a legal challenge filed in April by four wealthy school districts. A lawyer for the districts, George W. Bramblett, said that he intended to file an appeal next month, and that the districts were prepared to go to the state supreme court if necessary.

In their suit, the districts argued that the 8-year-old “Robin Hood” law effectively forces a statewide property tax. About a fifth of the state’s more than 1,000 districts are taxing at the state-set maximum, in many cases to keep from cutting their budgets, since expenses are rising and the law requires them to turn over some of their revenue to poor districts. The Texas Constitution forbids a state-set property tax.

But District Judge F. Scott McCown dismissed the lawsuit, which was supported by more than three dozen districts, saying the supreme court had already rejected the property-tax argument. He warned, though, that the finance system could become unconstitutional as more districts reach the maximum tax of $1.50 per $100 of property valuation.

Meanwhile, a separate action challenging the finance law is going forward. A state judge last month set a trial date for June of next year in a lawsuit filed by four Dallas-area taxpayers. They are seeking to prevent the Dallas and Highland Park districts from redistributing their property-tax revenue to other districts.

—Bess Keller

Md. Urges End to Indian Mascots

The Maryland board of education has approved a resolution calling for schools to stop using logos, mascots, and sports-team names related to American Indians.

Board members voted 10-2 last month to endorse the resolution on mascots and names of athletic teams, which had been adopted in June by the state’s advisory committee on the achievement of minorities at the urging of the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs.

The state board, however, rejected a request by the committee on minority achievement to enact the resolution into law, according to Linda Bazerjian, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Education. She said board members would launch an educational campaign about the issue as a first step.

In April, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approved a statement, which is not legally binding, urging schools to end the practice of using Indian mascots and names for sports teams. (“Rights Commission Calls for End to Indian Team Names,” April 25, 2001.) New York’s education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, has also called for a ban on the practice.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Bilingual Ed. Ban Pushed in Mass.

Ron K. Unz and several Massachusetts residents held a press conference in front of the Statehouse last week to launch a campaign to place an anti- bilingual-education measure on the state ballot in November 2002.

The measure, filed with the state attorney general on July 31, is similar to initiatives approved by voters in California and Arizona. It calls for students to be taught through “sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.”

Mr. Unz paid for the anti- bilingual-education campaigns in California and Arizona, and has promised to do the same in Colorado, where he launched a similar effort in June. The Massachusetts chapter of his organization, English for the Children, will be chaired by Lincoln Jesus Tamayo, the principal of Chelsea High School in Chelsea, Mass. Christine H. Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University, and Rosalie P. Porter, a researcher for the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, are the chapter’s co-chairwomen.

If approved by voters, the Massachusetts measure would overturn a 30-year-old law that requires districts to provide transitional bilingual education if they enroll 20 or more English-language learners with the same native language.

The July press conference was attended by about 50 protesters who support bilingual education. Some carried signs that said, “Go Away, Ron Unz,” according to observers.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Minute of Silence Upheld in Va.

A divided federal appeals court has upheld a Virginia law that mandates a daily minute of silence for public school students to “meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity.”

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, ruled 2-1 that the 2000 law was not an unconstitutional state establishment of religion.

“Establishing a short period of mandatory silence does not ipso facto amount to the establishment of anything but silence,” said the July 24 majority opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemayer.

Seven families backed by the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the law. A federal district judge upheld the statute last October, and it was enforced in Virginia’s public schools most of last school year.

In a dissent from last month’s decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert B. King said he would strike down the law based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling in Wallace v. Jaffree, which invalidated an Alabama moment-of- silence law as being enacted with a religious purpose.

Virginia “has engaged in a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce state-sanctioned prayer into its schools,” Judge King wrote.

Stuart H. Newberger, a lawyer representing the families on behalf of the ACLU, said the ruling would be appealed to the Supreme Court.

—Mark Walsh

Few Pass Colo. Test

Only 14 percent of Colorado 10th graders passed the first statewide mathematics test given for their grade last spring. Results of the Colorado Student Assessment Program show that 86 percent—more than 43,500 students—scored below the “proficient” level on the test.

“Clearly, we must give many more of our high school students the math curriculum that will allow them to succeed,” Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney said in releasing the results July 25.

The results were more encouraging on other portions of the CSAP, with 4th graders showing their highest scores in reading and writing since the state testing program began in 1997. Test scores will be used to help calculate the state’s first performance ratings of individual public schools, which are due out later this month.

—Mark Walsh

Mass. Shifts Focus of History Test

The Massachusetts board of education has decided to replace the world-history section of the state’s 10th grade MCAS exam with a test of U.S. history.

Beginning with the class of 2003, students must pass the English and mathematics portions of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to graduate with a diploma. There is no set timeline for when passing the American history test would become a part of the graduation requirement, but Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll said that would not happen until 2008 at the earliest.

Critics of the world-history exam say the test covers too broad a range of historical references. MCAS exams from this year’s world- history exam included questions, for example, about the Boxer Rebellion, Joan of Arc, and 14th-century Mali.

In June, the state board received a report on a state education department survey that asked high school history teachers about their preferences on topics in American and world history. After discussing the report, the board voted unanimously July 24 to move toward the U.S. history exam.

—John Gehring

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup


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