10/1999 State Education Roundup

Published October 1, 1999

Alabama * California * Georgia * Kentucky
Michigan * Mississippi * New Jersey * New York
Pennsylvania * Virginia


Mobile Voters Trounce Tax Hike

In a special election on August 17, a record number of voters in Mobile County decisively rejected a proposed property tax increase of $22 million a year for building and renovating the county’s public schools.

A well-organized campaign in support of the tax hike failed to connect with voters, who had rejected similar tax increase proposals by a 60-40 margin in 1988 and 1992. This time, more voters went to the polls to turn down the current proposal by an even higher 75-25 margin.

According to referendum opponent John Burke, with the group March Against Crime, voters didn’t believe the increase was “for the children” but was instead “for the adults.” In his view, school district officials had not been “good stewards of the money.”

“I am opposed to compulsory compassion that we see in our government agencies today,” he told Mobile Register reporter Martha Simmons. “I want my government to work for me; I don’t want to work for my government, i.e. paying taxes all the time.”
Mobile Register
August 19, 1999


Board Seeks Payment for Illegal Alien Schooling

A divided school board in Anaheim on August 19 approved a resolution that seeks reimbursement from other countries or the federal government for the cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants in the Anaheim Union High School District.

According to trustee Robert Stewart, more than 5,000 of the district’s 30,000 students are children of undocumented immigrants. Spending could be raised from the current level of $4,205 per student to $5,125 per student if the federal government paid to educate those children, said Stewart.

While California voters may have approved Proposition 187, which excludes illegal immigrants from public schools and other services, the state has not been able to implement the initiative. Frustrated by this, Board President Harald G. Martin in May initially proposed billing Mexico for the cost of educating illegal immigrants. Other countries subsequently were included in the proposal, but the board discovered it could not sue a foreign country.

The final resolution calls for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to count the number of illegal immigrant students in the district and to determine which country they came from. This would give trustees a basis for requesting payment from the federal government, which in turn could request payment from the countries of origin.
Los Angeles Times
August 20, 1999


Court OKs Student Prayer in School

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled on July 13 not only that students could pray in school, but also that they could lead other students in prayer and engage in most other forms of religious expression, so long as school officials were not involved.

The decision allows students to pray at football games, over the public address system, and at graduation ceremonies–but they cannot actively proselytize from the auditorium stage.

The case arose in 1996, when a public school vice principal challenged a 1993 state law that explicitly permitted student-led voluntary prayer in public schools, arguing that any form of prayer in the public schools was a state-sponsored exercise of religion and prohibited by the First Amendment. The panel disagreed, saying the state fosters atheism if it prohibits all forms of religious expression in schools.

“Permitting students to speak religiously signifies neither state approval nor disapproval of that speech,” wrote the judges. “The speech is not the state’s–either by attribution or by adoption. The permission signifies no more than that the state acknowledges its constitutional duty to tolerate religious expression. Only in this way is true neutrality achieved.”

While a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union voiced shock at the decision, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor–who filed the appeal–said, “Public school students do not give up their First Amendment rights when they go to school.”
Chicago Tribune
July 15, 1999


Teach Role of Religion in Schools, Says Ex-Gov.

While educators should not teach religion or promote specific religious beliefs, they should not avoid teaching about the role of religion in American history and culture, says a private group led by former Kentucky Governor Brereton Jones. Yet this often happens because teachers who are unsure about what they can and cannot say about religion in their classrooms steer clear of possible trouble and say nothing.

“Nobody has the right to teach their religion in the classroom,” Jones told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “But neither does anyone have the right to rewrite history and pretend that religion has no role in American history.”

Jones’ group, Public Education and Religion in Kentucky, plans to send teachers and decision-makers suggestions about teaching the role of religion in Kentucky and the United States. The group also has a Web site at www.p-e-r-k.org, which includes these suggestions, other recommendations, and links to relevant historical documents.

The historical documents include The Mayflower Compact, The Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Gettysburg Address. Links also are provided to prominent court cases that involved religion and to speeches and letters by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison.
Lexington Herald-Leader
August 19, 1999


Fee Denial Sparks Bias Lawsuit

After being denied a permit in June to open a new K-8 Catholic school in Superior Township, Ann Arbor’s Spiritus Sanctus school is suing the township, claiming it discriminates against religious schools.

Although the township argued that extra traffic from the proposed school would be too much for the gravel road it was to be located on, the school’s lawyer, Robert Bunting. pointed out this was the third time the township had denied permits to parochial schools.

“The Planning Commission and Superior Township have wrongfully developed, administered, and operated its ordinance to effectuate and otherwise allow the total exclusion of a Catholic K-8 school,” states the lawsuit filed by the school on August 20 in Washtenaw County Circuit Court.

According to Township Clerk Colleen O’Neal, the issue is not discrimination but compatibility with the rural atmosphere that township residents value. All three schools raised similar concerns about locating an activity that generated large gatherings and a large volume of traffic in a very rural and agricultural area. She said she had hoped to work with the school to find another site on a paved road.

“Is it a good thing if the school is next to a large lot where people own five, 10, 35 acres and they’ve hunted there, their grandparents have hunted there, and now they’re going to be shooting over a school yard?” she asked Detroit Free Press reporter Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki.
Detroit Free Press
August 19, 1999


Religious Symbols Are Not Gang Symbols

Reversing an earlier decision to bar a Jewish student from wearing a Star of David necklace because it could be mistaken for a gang symbol, the Harrison County School Board in Gulfport, Mississippi, voted unanimously on August 23 to exclude religious symbols from its anti-gang policy.

High school officials had told Ryan Green to tuck the necklace under his shirt since some gang symbols incorporate six-pointed stars. Protesting the action, Green’s father said he did not want his son to be afraid to express his religious beliefs in public.

“I don’t appreciate calling the Star of David a gang symbol,” he said, asking the board to reconsider its action. Instead, the board voted unanimously to uphold the anti-gang policy. Then, a week later, the board reversed itself after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the policy in federal court.

“We realized that [the policy] infringed on freedom of religious expression, and that freedom supersedes the safety issue,” said board president Randy Williams.
Daily Herald
August 25, 1999


To Improve Schools, Check Transcripts

To motivate students to do better in school, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce has initiated a program called School Counts, which encourages employers to check the transcripts of prospective employees who go straight from high school to work.

A pilot program will begin this fall in three counties and expand statewide by next year, according to Dana Egrecsky, the chamber’s vice president of workforce development. The National Alliance of Business has a similar two-year-old program called Making Academics Count.

Could an employer’s request for a transcript really affect student performance in school? An overwhelming majority of students say it would, according to a recent Public Agenda survey where 84 percent of students said they would work harder in school if they had to show a transcript to get a job. But the same survey reported that only a few employers (16 percent) ask to see transcripts. The chamber aims to change that by encouraging employers to ask potential employees if they have a School Counts certificate.

The certificate will show that the student has met four criteria in grades 9-12: earned at least a C in all academic courses; achieved at least a 95 percent attendance and punctuality record; completed high school in eight consecutive semesters; and taken a course load that exceeded graduation requirements.

“The school people love it because it reinforces the message they have been trying to get across for years,” Egrecsky told Bergen Record reporter Kathleen Moore.
Bergen Record
August 20, 1999


School Tax Hikes Nix Tax Relief

The Public Policy Institute of New York State warns that, by raising taxes above inflation, school districts may be effectively taking back property tax savings that homeowners are supposed to get through the state’s STAR property tax relief program. The Institute notes that per-student spending for New York state already is the third highest in the nation.

The Institute reports that, while enrollments rose by less than 1 percent between 1996 and 1997 for all Empire State school districts outside of New York City, per-student tax collections increased by an average of 3.5 percent over the same period, easily outpacing inflation’s 2.3 percent. Per-student collections averaged $5,707 for all districts studied, compared to $5,512 in 1996. State aid to schools was $3,870 per student, up slightly from the previous year.
School Tax Watch
July 1999


City Schools Spur Exodus to Suburbs

Although test scores have improved in most of Philadelphia’s 250 public schools under Superintendent David Hornbeck, even Hornbeck himself admits it will take 12 years of similar annual improvements to bring city schools to the same level as most suburban schools. That’s too long for many middle-income Philadelphia families who don’t want to hitch their own child’s future to that of the city’s schools. Unable to afford private schools in the city, they move to the suburbs.

IRS records show that as 238,909 new taxpayers moved into Philadelphia during the last decade, they crossed paths with another 387,121 taxpayers on their way out, for a net loss of almost 150,000 people, roughly 9 percent of the city’s population. A major reason for the exodus is the search for better schools, say city officials, demographers, and former residents.

“I would love to live in the city,” suburbanite Meda Mitchell told Philadelphia Inquirer writer Mercedes R. Diaz, echoing the views of many former Philadelphians. Mitchell moved out three years ago to find a good public school for her daughter, citing concerns about overcrowding, teacher-management conflicts, and textbook problems in the city’s schools.

While mayoral candidates Democrat John F. Street and Republican Sam Katz want to stop the exodus from the city, neither has offered a proposal to fix the problems of the city’s schools.
Philadelphia Inquirer
August 8, 1999


Teachers Warm to New Standards

Although many teachers still complain about different aspects of the Standards of Learning adopted by the state of Virginia in the mid-1990s, fewer now are complaining that the standards are too hard, according to a recent account by Daily Press reporter Sandra Tan.

For example, two years ago, math teacher Cassandra Hamilton was dubious that her younger students from low-income families could absorb all the required information, which included learning basic statistics. Now her doubts are gone and she is convinced her students can meet the standards.

Makalla Routten, a special education teacher, was another skeptic who now is another convert. She’s surprised that her students did much better than expected.

“Students are learning better,” she told Tan. “They’re learning more. I’m teaching better. The [Standards of Learning] are a good thing. It’s good to have high expectations.”
Hampton Roads Daily Press
August 15, 1999