School choice news from the states

Published June 1, 1999

State Nixes Secession Bid

The California state school board has rejected an attempt by residents in Lomita, a 2,000-student suburban community south of Los Angeles, to secede from the 700,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Secession proponents argued that a smaller district would be more manageable and more responsive to local residents.

“The smaller you are, the more effective you can be,” Lomita City Council member Robert Hargreve told Education Week, arguing in favor of local control. State board member Marian Bergeson agreed, saying that locally run “schools would be more focused and better able to involve parents.”

The state education department, however, persuaded the state board to deny the request in April, on the grounds that secession would disrupt the region’s educational program and segregate students. Secession would have increased Lomita’s white student enrollment from 21 percent to 35 percent.

Several other Los Angeles-area communities also are seeking to secede from LAUSD, but their odds of success are low. The last suburban school system to succeed in breaking away was Torrance, some 50 years ago. As an alternative, the Lomita secession group is now looking at converting its three schools into charter schools.
Education Week
April 21, 1999


A PAC for the Children

The nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, recently announced it had changed the name of its political action committee from NEA-PAC to “The NEA Fund for Children and Public Education.”

“We believe the new name more accurately reflects our political action committee’s focus and promotes greater membership participation,” said NEA President Bob Chase.

Historically, the NEA’s PAC has supported Democrats almost exclusively and has poured millions of dollars into campaigns to oppose school choice.
Illinois Education Association Advocate
March 1999


Longer School Year Proposed

Legislative leaders in Florida have approved a $40 million proposal that would fund planning grants for at least 229 schools considering a longer school year. The proposal has been promoted by State Senator Don Sullivan, who wants to extend the school year from 180 days to 210 days. Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said his priority would be to implement the longer year in schools where students were performing poorly on state tests.

Sullivan emphasized that the longer school year would be offered only in schools that want it. He noted that many other countries already have school years longer than the 175 to 180 days typically found in the U.S. Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, for example, have school years of 220 days or more. School officials in Pinellas already are interested in having a longer calendar for the 30,000 students at its 29 elementary schools, five middle schools, two high schools, and three special-needs schools.

Sullivan estimates that adding 30 days to the school year could require new spending of up to $800 million for teacher salaries and other expenses.
St. Petersburg Times
April 20, 1999


Impairment Doesn’t Excuse Lack of Effort

Refusing to order the reinstatement of a learning-disabled student who sued after being dismissed from Boston’s Phillips Academy, a federal judge blamed the student’s poor academic performance not on the learning disability but on the student’s “willful lack of effort.”

The student, Nicholas Axelrod Panagopoulos, claimed that he was dismissed from Phillips last December because his attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder made it appear that he wasn’t trying hard enough to turn in his assignments on time. U.S. District Judge Edward F. Harrington disagreed that the impairment was the problem.

Panagopoulos’s failure to meet the school’s high standards, said the judge, was due to a “willful lack of effort on his part, invariably excused by a parent who indulged his lack of discipline and who failed to support the school in its efforts to assist him to do his work.”

Barbara Landis Chase, head of Phillips Academy, said the school does provide reasonable accommodations to disabled students and will continue to do so.
Wall Street Journal
April 1, 1999


Braille Test Waived for Blind Students

Four recently blinded high school students at South Carolina’s Governor Morehead School for the Blind will not be denied diplomas simply because they are unable to pass a reading test in Braille.

The State Board of Education initially insisted that the students could notpass the reading test unless they read the test themselves in Braille. But after criticism from advocates for the blind, state officials relented and said the students would be allowed to take the test the same way they study and take exams–by having a computer read the material to them.

“We are teaching them Braille, but the tests also need to reflect the technological realities of today,” Morehead Superintendent Charles Bernardo told The News & Observer.

According to Bernardo, it takes about four years to master Braille, a system where printed characters are formed with patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingers. Older children tend to learn Braille more slowly than younger children, and those who lose their sight as teenagers or adults may never master it.

“This does not guarantee them a diploma,” noted Phil Kirk, chairman of the State Board of Education. “They must still earn it. They must still understand their lessons.”
The News & Observer
April 9, 1999


Correcting a Reading Deficiency

When J.J. Hess experienced difficulties in his fourth-grade class in Ohio’s Fredericktown Local School District in Knox County, his parents pulled him out and enrolled him at a local Catholic school at a cost of $1,900 a year. J.J. performed better at his new school, but when the 13-year-old, now a sixth-grader, was given a reading test in February, his parents found he could read only at a second-grade level. J.J. is now being tutored at a private learning center at a cost of $260 a month . . . a cost J.J.’s parents think the Fredericktown Schools should pick up.

“I expect them to compensate,” J.J.’s mother Deborah McMillan told The Columbus Dispatch. “They had their chance to provide appropriate services for my son and failed.”

Because of the threat of a lawsuit, Fredericktown Schools Superintendent Dan Humphrey declined comment, though he noted the district’s reading program is one of the best in the state. When J.J. was at Fredericktown, he attended a reading class for learning-disabled students and regular classes for other subjects.
The Columbus Dispatch
April 8, 1999


“Ladies’ Choice” Dances OK’d

When they organized “ladies’ choice” and “gentlemen’s choice” after-school dances for students and their parents, the Parent-Teacher Organizations in Rhode Island’s Northern Lincoln Elementary School District certainly didn’t expect to be accused of violating state and federal discrimination laws regarding gender-specific activities. But that’s what happened after a divorced mother complained that her 11-year-old daughter felt uncomfortable going to a ladies’ choice dance without her father.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said events where children attend with an adult of the opposite sex discriminate against students in single-parent households. But school principals and the school district lawyer disagreed, pointing out that each school holds an event for every type of parent-child relationship. In fact, the federal Title IX code mandating equity in school activities specifically allows father-son and mother-daughter activities.

After reviewing the advice of the school lawyer, PTO leaders decided that gender-specific events that exclude some families are in fact legal, and so a scheduled ladies’ choice dance went ahead as planned.
Boston Globe
May 1, 1999


College Freshmen Reveal Grade School Failings

Concerned about the high percentage of freshmen who enter Tennessee’s community colleges unprepared for college-level work, educators there are looking for ways to better prepare high school graduates for college.

Lacking the requisite math, English, reading, or study skills, a full 28 percent of freshmen at the state’s four-year colleges must take remedial classes in those subjects, or take developmental courses to build on what they already know. At the state’s community colleges, this figure soars to 64 percent.

Remedial and developmental courses at Tennessee’s four-year and community colleges represent about 1 percent of the state funding for higher education, an estimated $6.7 million for the 1998-99 school year.

“We need to work more closely with high schools and make sure that we agree on what they need and what needs to be taught,” Ellen Weed told The Tennessean. Weed is vice president of academic affairs at Nashville State Technical Institute.

However, the problem starts well before high school. In one developmental reading class, where students are learning how to find the main ideas in reading material, teacher Betty Renfro says “no one ever taught them how to study.”
The Tennessean
April 8, 1999