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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – April 2 - 9, 2004

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STATE
Survey reveals public concerns on education / Northern Star (NIU)
House votes to keep scholarship perk / Sun Times
Students need family, schools on their side / Rockford Register Star
Teachers-to-be lose in budget / State Journal-Register
'Tax nerd' calls for better funding of schools / Burnham Star
Campaign eyes the grassroots / Catalyst
Is politics driving state school reform? / Peoria Journal Star
Retired teachers pass along lessons /
Chicago Tribune
NATIONAL
Study: Meditation lowers teen blood pressure / CNN.com
Detroit Schools to slash 3,200 jobs /
Detroit News
Nebraska shuns state tests /
Chicago Tribune
No Child Left Behind? Children Will Be Left Behind /
Forbes Magazine
School choice plans deserve a closer look / Newsday
Milwaukee's school voucher program rocked by scandal / Aurora Beacon News
Coalition Argues for Ambassador Hotel / Los Angeles Times
Education Is Va. Lawmakers' Sticking Point / Washington Post
More school districts move toward mergers / Des Moines Register
Bush pushes overhaul of vocational education / Sun Times
Kennedy Demands Full Funding for School Bill / New York Times
Opinion - Shedding light on No Child law / The Columbian
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STATE
Survey reveals public concerns on education  

Residents polled about state budget, health care, taxes

Gerold Shelton, Northern Star Campus News (NIU)

A survey conducted earlier this year by the NIU Public Opinion Laboratory showed that 58 percent of the people surveyed would be willing to pay an additional $25 a year to maintain the current service levels of higher education standards.

It also showed that residents are concerned the quality of K-12 education is slipping.

“School funding has been on voters’ minds,” said Michael Peddle, who oversaw the survey. “The surveys really seem to give them a reason to pay attention.”

The surveys covered a wide variety of topics facing Illinois residents, including the state budget, education, taxes and health care.

“Legislators do pay attention to the surveys,” Peddle said.

Interviews were conducted over the telephone to men and women 18 years of age and older, with 1,262 respondents and a 95 percent confidence interval.

The interviewing portion was conducted by the opinion laboratory between November 2003 and January 2004. The lab is made up of about 30 interviewers. The state is broken up into six regions and is then reweighted to represent the state and attain the desired confidence interval.

Results take about a month to tabulate. Two or three people, including Peddle, go through the survey in depth to get the results.

“It is very definitely a long process to put it all together,” Peddle said. “We try to get 200 people in the different areas of the state, and some surveys are done in Spanish, too.”

Peddle is in his first year overseeing the surveys but has been involved with the process for 15 years.

“We have done these since 1984,” Peddle said. “We do these in an effort to inform public policy makers.”

Within the next few weeks, the survey results will be posted online at www.cgsniu.org.

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House votes to keep scholarship perk  

Dave McKinney, Sun-Times Springfield Bureau

SPRINGFIELD -- Despite galloping college tuition costs, Illinois House members voted Thursday to preserve a controversial perk that enables them to dole out $8 million in free college scholarships.

A bid to eliminate the legislative scholarship program drew only 54 votes, six fewer than were needed for passage. Sixty-three others voted against the plan.

Its sponsor, Rep. Naomi Jakobs son (D-Urbana), kept it alive for a possible later vote through a parliamentary maneuver.

The program was established in the early 1900s and gives legislators authority each year to grant eight years of free tuition at the University of Illinois and another state university.

But it has been beset by scandal in the past, with instances of legislators passing on the perk to relatives or to the children of lobbyists and political donors.

"The abuses of the past smell like yesterday's Swiss cheese sandwich,'' said Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville), who voted to scrap the program.

But others defended it as a way to reward high-achieving students and give teens in underprivileged areas a way off crime-ridden streets.

"This is the only thing I know that can be directed from my office where students can benefit instantly,'' said Rep. Calvin Giles (D-Chicago), who voted against the bill.

Thursday's vote represents a departure for the House, which in recent years voted three times to kill the program in the wake of several media exposes.

Elsewhere at the Capitol, the Senate confirmed several new appointees to state boards and commissions, including the wife of U.S. Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.).

Rose Marie Lipinski was tabbed by Gov. Blagojevich for a $50,893-a-year seat on the Court of Claims, a part-time panel that rules on claims against the state.

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Students need family, schools on their side  

Column by Judy Emerson, Rockford Register Star

Readers responded resoundingly that parental involvement is key to academic success for children of all races and economic levels.

I had asked for feedback about what can be done to improve black and Hispanic students’ representation in the top tier of this district’s academic achievers.

Dennis Dotson of Rockford addressed the problem in his letter.

“Young black men have to have strong fathers at home that will sacrifice in order for them to excel,” he wrote. “The father has to give up most of his free time to teach or find somebody who can; he has to set educational goals for his children; he has to expose the child to success; he has to be involved in his life. Really involved. Not just taking them to the movies sometimes, or buying them a pair of shoes.”

Former Rockford resident and district employee Aaron U. Bolin is now an assistant professor of psychology at Arkansas State University. He says the system is an “ineffective and self-serving bureaucracy.

“My solution: Kill and dismember the beast. Cut the district into pieces ... It would put much more power and money into the classrooms and eliminate ineffective central administrators.”

Being a student is a wonderful thing, but graduating from high school is the very minimum level of achievement for young people to have any chance at success.

A recent report from Harvard University titled “Losing our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis” is a chilling indictment of the status quo.

The report claims that individual districts and most states manipulate their graduation rates to appear better than they are. The researchers used a formula they say is more accurate to calculate the rates.

By their reckoning, Rockford’s overall graduation rate — 50.5 percent — is the third worst among Illinois’ 10 largest districts. The graduation rate for Rockford’s African-American students is 37.6 percent, rock bottom.

Businessman Ron Tenin, father of one of this year’s Academic All Stars from the Rockford district, said he was “saddened by the lack of minority representation” in the group.

“Most of these kids who were honored started life with advantages,” he wrote. “Let’s say they hit a double before the game even started.”

One advantage his daughter had was quality preschool, Tenin said. He suggests that the government offer incentives to good preschools to subsidize spots for low-income minority children. Affluent families might be willing to pay a bit more tuition to improve diversity, he said.

Bright teens and preteens could put in some weekend hours tutoring young children at community centers and churches.

“Community passion and pride along with economic incentives can help create a better atmosphere for minority kids to succeed,” he said.

“It’s a reflection on all of us when so many aren’t offered anything close to the same opportunities, and we sit by with only our own families’ best interest at heart with little left for the less advantaged.”

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Teachers-to-be lose in budget  

By TOM POLANSEK, STATE CAPITOL BUREAU, 4/3/04

Kris Kerwin, a senior at Ursuline Academy, likes to blow stuff up in chemistry class and wants to inspire needy students with his love for science.

James Garcia, president of his senior class at Southeast High School, would love to teach high school American history.

Both are among 100 students statewide accepted this year to the Golden Apple Scholars program for would-be teachers committed to working in underprivileged schools.

But their dreams might end up the victims of state budget cuts.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has proposed eliminating the program’s $3.8 million funding from the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“It’s like I get to do what I love and, hey, I get to blow stuff up,” Kerwin, 17, said about his favorite subject. “But it’s more than that. I enjoy the challenge of not knowing something and then using the rules of math and science to figure it out. The curiosity is what fascinates me.”

For four years, the scholars receive $5,000 annually to attend college and $2,000 annually to participate in summer programs, where they gain a “master’s teaching level understanding,” said Dominic Belmonte, director of teacher preparation for the program.

Over the summer, they learn how to handle the challenges of teaching in a “school of need” without burning out, he said.

“We’ve discovered that that combination of advanced teacher preparation and classes is what makes them career teachers,” said Belmonte, who co-founded the program.

After graduation, scholars are committed to working for five years in a poor Illinois school with low standardized test scores. Roughly half of those schools are in Chicago.

Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for the governor’s Office of Management and Budget, said the state’s $1.7 billion budget deficit did not leave room for the program.

“We did not have a choice but to take a hard look at grants and, in essence, had to make a number of tough but necessary choices,” Carroll said.

If lawmakers approve Blagojevich’s cuts, scholars can apply for slots in the Illinois Future Teachers Corps or the Monetary Award Program instead, she said. Those pay $5,000 and up to about $4,600 a year, respectively.

But the scholars say the program isn’t about the money.

“The Golden Apple prepares teachers,” Garcia, 17, said. “They pick the best of the best and put them in the worst situations so they can face their fears.”

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'Tax nerd' calls for better funding of schools  

Increased state income tax suggested

By Michael Hirtzer, The Star, April 1, 2004

Ralph M. Martire is a "tax nerd."

"I'm a geek and I love this stuff," he said.

As executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, Martire wades through Illinois' complicated tax code — a code that he calls one of the least "transparent" in the country — to find ways to better assess taxes.

As is, the system isn't working, Martire said Monday during a speech in front of more than 50 people in the cafeteria at Thornwood High School in South Holland.

The speech was sponsored by the Better Funding for Better Schools Coalition, which advocates education funding reform.

The CTBA is a bipartisan Chicago-based think tank that advocates fair taxing.

"We don't over spend in Illinois, we tax poorly," Matire said.

Illinois schools are already under funded, and the problem will increase without tax reform, he said.

"Not only does the state do a horrible job funding schools, it cannot do a better job and, in fact, over time will do a worse job that it does today," he said.

The state, he said, is too reliant on property taxes, and since schools receive a majority of funding from the property taxes of area residents, schools in economically-depressed areas will continue to suffer.

Citing 2000 U.S. Census data, Martire added that Americans in the lower 60 percent income bracket, from 1979-1999, have worked longer but have taken home less money.

"We're taxing folks that are losing money over time," he said.

Martire suggested increasing state income taxes from 3 percent to 5 percent to help fund schools and other civil services. He also suggested giving some of that money to people in the low and middle income brackets as refundable credit to offset property taxes.

"That money has to come from somewhere, and it has to come from state revenue, not a local source, and it has to be divided more fairly," he said.

Martire — who writes a column for the Chicago Sun-Times, which is owned by Hollinger International, which also owns The Star — said raising state income taxes would provide fair funding to all public schools without increasing the tax burden on lower-income brackets.

With the increase, Illinois, he said, will still be one of the least taxing states in the country.

"We'll still stay in the bottom 15 of all states," Martire said.

"This is not about creating a left-wing, liberal utopia of taxation," Martire said. "This is about taxing fairly, responsibly and efficiently so that we can support essential public services like our schools on a fair basis over time."

The meeting was the first of two meetings held this week. The second was held Tuesday at Alan B. Shepard High School in Palos Heights.

Myrtis Bush, a South Holland resident whose son attends Thornwood, said Martire's concept seemed logical.

"It made sense to me," Bush said after the speech. "He presented it on a layman's level. I can understand the concept behind it."

Bush said she plans to call and write letters to local legislators, and also to pass out information at her church, St. Stephen's Lutheran Church in Chicago.

"I thought for years that we needed an income tax increase," South Holland resident Karan Baker said.

Baker, whose daughter plays in Thornwood's marching band, said the current system isn't working. She said marching band may be canceled next season as part of Thornton Township School District 205's district-wide cuts.

Baker said her property taxes have doubled since she moved to the area 15 years ago, while the school district has fallen some $9 million in dept.

"Are we paying tax for them not to educate our kids?" she asked.

Sharon G. Voliva, president of the District 205 school board and the chairwoman of the Better School Coalition, said interested parties, aside from contacting legislators, can also attend a rally in Springfield on May 12.

She said coalition members will lobby for the income tax increase in the rotunda of the Capitol from 4 to 9 p.m.

More information is available at www.betterfundingforbetterschools.com

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Campaign eyes the grassroots

But politicians say the fate of proposals to provide property tax relief and more money for schools rests with Gov. Blagojevich, who has pledged not to raise the income and sales taxes.

Ed Finkel and Daniel C. Vock, Catalyst

Ralph Martire, an enthusiastic numbers cruncher, had just finished explaining the details of his school finance reform plan at a town meeting in Grayslake when state Sen. Wendell Jones weighed in.

Martire’s plan, which would lower property taxes and raise the state sales and income taxes, may make economic sense, said Jones, a Republican from northwest suburban Palatine. But it would fail politically, he continued. “Here’s why,” Jones explained, turning to the audience of 75 to 100 people. “Who’s willing to pay higher sales and income taxes?”

Virtually everyone raised a hand, Martire recalls. “And [Jones] thought no hands would go up. Voters are more sophisticated than we give them credit for.”

Through gatherings like these, Martire’s organization, the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, and dozens more hope to succeed where like-minded advocates repeatedly have failed in the past. They want the state to raise income and sales taxes both to provide property tax relief and to raise the level of school funding for hundreds of poor districts without siphoning money from rich districts.

“The state has needed [this] for the past 30 years but has been unable to generate the political willpower,” says Martire.

Organizers of the new campaign, called A+ Illinois, plan to barnstorm the state, build a broad coalition of support and raise public awareness before approaching the Legislature.

A+ learns from past mistakes

MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, another coalition leader, says A+ learned a few lessons from “past efforts that have not gotten to the finish line.”

For one, A+ broadened its base beyond “education-connected leaders” to include advocates for such issues as housing, health care and social services.

These related services suffer from the same tax structure that afflicts education, Martire notes, and their advocates have come to recognize the interdependence of all their work. “That is new, and that’s very powerful,” he says.

A+ also is trying to build support for the concept of finance reform before getting too specific. “If you get into those details too soon, before the public is really with you on understanding the nature of the problem, then it can be labeled and tagged as unworkable before the debate has begun,” Barrett says. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s set the table first.’ Our expectation is that this is more than a one-year effort to create momentum for change.”

The coalition is targeting the Legislature rather than the state constitution or the courts because all routes lead there eventually.

Besides, any effort to get Illinois courts to boost money for schools “is not likely to succeed,” says Dawn Clark Netsch, a former Illinois comptroller who made overhauling the education funding system a central part of her unsuccessful 1994 bid to unseat Jim Edgar as governor.

Netsch, now a Northwestern University law professor, notes that the Illinois Supreme Court repeatedly has refused to enter the education-funding debate, leaving the matter to the Legislature.

Blagojevich the big obstacle

One large—and perhaps insurmountable—obstacle stands in the way of the A+ efforts: Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s opposition to raising the sales or income taxes.

“The reality is that the legislative process in a lot of ways begins and ends with the governor,” explains Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, who shepherded a measure to swap higher state income taxes for lower property taxes through the House in 1997.

Lawmakers usually don’t pass highly controversial proposals if they know the governor is opposed to them, because they likely would have a hard time gathering enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto, Brown notes.

The governor repeatedly has called for an overhaul of the state’s education bureaucracy, so it would report directly to him. In March, he told the Senate that his proposed reforms, slated to take effect in 2006, must be instituted before school finance reform could ensue.

“Unless we change the system, unless we instill a culture of accountability, until we create a culture of innovation, the ongoing discussion on how we fund schools will continue to ring hollow to the taxpayers,” he said.

However, as longtime Springfield watcher Charles N. Wheeler III reads the situation, Blagojevich’s political advisors think it is more important for him to keep his campaign pledge not to raise the income or sales taxes than to please allies in the finance reform movement.

The governor’s proposals are a way “to blunt whatever criticism he might come under for not addressing the underlying problem of school finance,” says Wheeler, director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Regardless, the governor has made no guarantees that he would take on the finance issue even if he gets his reforms.

Advocates for the tax swap acknowledge the difficulty that Blagojevich’s position presents. They hope to generate excitement at the grassroots level and then show the governor that the idea has broad support. One measure of public opinion is a February Chicago Tribune poll that found that more than half of Illinois voters support trading higher state income taxes for lower property taxes and adding money for schools.

And history shows that raising the income tax is not the “third rail” of Illinois politics that many suppose it is, suggests Wheeler. Gov. Jim Thompson won election after hiking payroll taxes, and Edgar successfully campaigned on making a temporary tax “surcharge” permanent, Wheeler notes.

Edgar says legislators hard to convince

But poll numbers and history might not be enough to convince Blagojevich and other politicians. Edgar said his staff showed legislators the results of polls conducted in their districts that showed support for his 1997 finance reform proposal, which added accountability measures to Netsch’s finance scheme. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s now, but once the tax passes they’re going to be mad,’” Edgar recalls.

Even so, Edgar insists that his plan would have become law if Senate President James “Pate” Philip, R-Wood Dale, had let it come up for a vote on the Senate floor. But Philip decided the plan would be bad for suburban schools, so he blocked it.

After leaving Springfield for the summer, Senate Republicans came under fire for not acting on the measure, so later that year they agreed to a proposal that set a minimum amount of money, called the “foundation level,” that school districts should spend on each student. If local taxes didn’t provide that much, the state would kick in the rest. Edgar signed the measure.

Since then, Philip has retired, and Democrats now control both the House and Senate. “There’s no doubt that if I had the [current] legislative make-up, I would’ve passed the [tax swap] bill,” Edgar says.

The fault lines in the school finance debate often fall along geographic, rather than partisan, lines.

Edgar maintains that 10 Republicans in the 59-member Senate were ready to vote in favor of his 1997 proposal. On the other hand, Democrats who represent affluent suburbs—some of the most politically vulnerable members of the Legislature—probably wouldn’t support a higher income tax.

Many suburbanites moved to their communities in order to give their children a quality education, and the high value of real estate in those areas provides an ample tax base to pay for good schools. Relying more heavily on statewide taxes would almost certainly decrease the money available for affluent suburban districts.

“Heck, there’s no way the state could have the money to bring everybody up to New Trier [standards]. And if you take New Trier down to the average, there’s a lot of other suburbs that are going to come down, and that sends people off” in the Legislature, Edgar says.

New support in the suburbs

However, the A+ coalition believes the issue is ripe politically because the Democrats control Springfield and because a broader swath of school districts would benefit. With three out of four districts in the state in the red, even north and northwest suburban districts might be supportive.

Neil Codell, superintendent of Niles Township High School District 219, says he supports a tax swap “in theory” but adds: “We want to know what we’re going to get back.”

As a March 16 tax referendum approached, Codell’s district, which has a median home price of $224,000, was contemplating such measures as limiting students to five courses plus physical education, combining sports teams at Niles North and Niles West high schools, and eliminating extracurricular arts. (The referendum passed.)

The North Cook Superintendents Association agrees with the governor that some kind of administrative reform is needed first, says Max McGee, Wilmette School District superintendent, former state schools superintendent and president of the North Cook group. “This group is very skeptical of an income tax increase in return for a property tax rebate,” he says. “They’re thinking, as I am, that you need to have some other things in place first.”

A more broadly based suburban group echoes that sentiment, supporting a tax swap only if it includes a guarantee that suburban schools would not lose money. “Our school districts recognize the need for equity statewide. But it has to be a bringing up of the bottom and not a leveling down,” says Donna Baiocchi, executive director of a consortium of 114 suburban districts, mainly in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties, that is known as Ed-Red, for Education Research and Development.

Business community hanging back

Often, downstate Republicans support higher dependence on the income tax. But in 1997, many were hesitant to sign on because the top GOP leaders in both chambers, who exert a lot of power, hailed from Chicago suburbs. Now those leaders have changed, weakening the suburbs’ control of the GOP agenda.

The business community, traditionally supportive of Republicans, played a key role in promoting Edgar’s plan, the former governor says. It signed on after Edgar pledged support for other reforms they supported, including higher standards for teacher recertification.

Today, different sectors of the business community have slightly different takes on a tax swap, but all are concerned that property tax relief might save them less than an income tax hike would cost. With dozens of business-related fees hiked last year and a potential increase in the corporate income tax this year, businesses are wary of any plan to make them pay more.

“We believe in local control and local taxation, and we don’t trust the state,” says Douglas Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce.

Even with broad support, many observers insist, the fate of any funding reform rests with Blagojevich. “I’ve got to say, all of this is kind of minor, or just kind of insignificant, as long as the governor’s sitting out there saying he’s against it,” says Edgar.

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Is politics driving state school reform?  

Peoria Journal Star Editorial

Early in his February budget address, Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried a little humor to soften up the dignitaries. "This one won't be nearly as bad as the last one," the governor said to State School Superintendent Robert Schiller, referring to the January State of the State speech when he blasted Schiller and called for dismantling his "old, Soviet-style bureaucracy."

Believe it or not, the light-hearted greeting was one of the few exchanges between the governor and the superintendent since Blagojevich took office 15 months ago. The two have had no meaningful conversations about education reform or school finances or administration or the bureaucracy to which the governor devoted an hour of his 90-minute speech, according to a Schiller spokeswoman. Nor has the governor had a serious discussion with his own appointee to chair the State Board.

The proposal to create a Department of Education under the governor's control was developed by Blagojevich and his top lieutenants in a series of summer and fall meetings, and without input from the state's education expert, according to the Chicago Tribune. It was part of a pattern that should outrage taxpayers.

The feud between the governor, Schiller and the Board of Education dates to before the 2002 election, when the board was looking for a new superintendent. Blagojevich asked board members not to fill the position until after the vote so the new governor could have some input. They hired Schiller anyway.

Three months into his term, the governor fired the board president. The Tribune says he swung the ax by fax and let the president's successor find out about her promotion by reading the newspaper. The feud intensified when the independent agency defied the governor on a couple of important issues, then refused to hire any of two dozen job applicants referred by his staff. (The list of recommended hires arrived after the governor instituted a hiring freeze.)

Schiller, who has 35 years of educational know-how, says he repeatedly tried to schedule a meeting with Blagojevich but got nowhere. Blagojevich's education aide, Brenda Holmes, says Schiller had cooperation problems of his own, rarely calling or meeting with her. "If he had been willing to discuss things with me, he might have had a better chance of getting to the governor," the Tribune quoted Holmes as saying. There's fault to pass around here.

But all of this suggests that Blagojevich's so-called reform is more about personalities and politics than about educating kids, which should surprise no one in Illinois. Education, however, is not just another fiefdom. It is the state's most important, and most expensive, function. And if you've been paying attention, you know it's not going particularly well these days.

To judge by the local news, Illinois' schoolkids face larger classes, fewer opportunities and greater inequity in available resources. Those are hurdles enough. They should expect the grown-ups in Springfield to get over their own.

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Retired teachers pass along lessons

In a new mentor program, retirees provide support to and alleviate stress of rookies in Chicago schools notoriously difficult to staff

Ana Beatriz Cholo, Chicago Tribune

It was right after lunch, and the students in Mr. Locke's world history class behaved as if they were on a candy-induced high.

They had been given the task of looking up 10 words in a dictionary, defining them and then writing a story using the words, but only one girl sat quietly and worked.

While one student whined that her pencil had been stolen, several others pestered the teacher for a pen, and one girl persisted in stabbing her neighbor with a pencil.

As Jason Locke trudged on patiently with the class, retired teacher and principal Alvin Lubov watched. Later he advised Locke on maintaining order and offered to work with one disruptive student.

Lubov was paired with Locke through a new mentor program that teams retired teachers and rookies in Chicago public schools that are notoriously hard to staff. The goal, officials say, is to improve teacher retention by providing more support.

As a first-year teacher at Austin High School on the West Side, Locke, 24, is still flush with enthusiasm.

But working in a difficult and sometimes unfamiliar urban environment is tough on teachers, especially those new to the job, and the mentors have been asked to alleviate some of the stress, said Al Bertani, the district's chief officer for professional development.

"We have a lot of very talented, sage and well-practiced retirees that can be great support for our new teachers," Bertani said.

Most new hires, although knowledgeable in their subject matter, come into the schools unprepared to deal with non-academic issues, he said.

"If you did your student teaching in Franklin Grove, Wis., most likely that place does not look like Austin High School," Bertani said. "They may really want to teach in that environment, but that alone doesn't guarantee that you can be successful."

For the pilot program, which began in January, 52 retired teachers were hired to work with 67 new teachers in three high schools--Austin, Englewood and Farragut--and eight feeder elementary schools. They mentor one or two teachers once or twice a week for $124 a day--slightly more than substitute pay.

Bertani said Chicago is the first city to implement the program, which is being supported by the AARP, the National Retired Teachers Association and the Retired Teachers Association of Chicago. Schools in San Francisco, Washington and Baltimore are expected to follow suit in the near future.

District officials hope to continue the program next year and perhaps expand it to a few more schools.

Some individuals said personality differences between the beginning teachers and their mentors have hampered the effectiveness of the program. Some do not get along well, and the mentors often are at a loss themselves on how to handle a class of unruly students, some new teachers say.

Already, all first-year teachers in the city are assigned a mentor from their school, so those involved with this initiative end up with two mentors.

Eileen Wild retired 10 years ago after almost 44 years in the system. Now she's mentoring teachers at Farragut Career Academy in Little Village.

"When you are a beginner, you need some guidance, so they brought back the old-timers," Wild said.

She says, however, that in her day the students were easier to deal with. When she began teaching in 1947, for example, students' chairs and desks were fastened to the floor.

"You can keep order this way," she said. "Now it's more flexible. It's much more difficult to maintain order."

Locke, a University of Toledo graduate, said he always dreamed of moving to Chicago and could not wait to leave his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

An earnest, no-nonsense kind of guy, Locke said he was skeptical about the mentor program at first but has since changed his mind. Lubov, a veteran of 35 years, has "been nothing but wonderful."

For his part, Lubov says, Locke would have been fine without him, but it's always "easier to have someone you can talk to."

In Locke's class, the clock on the wall is covered with a piece of paper that says, "It's time to work." When students misbehaved, he would take them in the hallway and talk to them.

Returning from one such encounter, he said to his class: "Why is it like pulling teeth today? You guys write notes all day. Write a story."

One student briefly paused--then continued writing a chatty letter to a friend.

"Nothing in Ohio prepared me for this," Locke said after class.

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NATIONAL

Study: Meditation lowers teen blood pressure  

AP, April 3, 2004 

ATLANTA, Georgia -- As a high school senior, Nick Fitts had a lot on his mind -- two jobs, no car and rocky relations with his mother.

The stress raised his blood pressure enough to put him at risk for developing hypertension, even though he kept active with track, band and junior ROTC.

When Medical College of Georgia officials asked Fitts to join a study of whether meditation could lower blood pressure, he thought they were out of their minds. But getting into his mind was the key.

He benefited, and so did dozens of other Augusta teenagers. The study found that two 15-minute meditation sessions each day -- once at home, the other at school -- helped the students lower their blood pressure over four months. Their blood pressure even continued to drop for four months after the meditation sessions ended, researchers said Friday.

"The meditation calms me down and makes me think better about things," said Fitts, now a nursing student at the University of South Carolina at Aiken.

Researchers screened 5,000 students and found 156 had blood pressure similar to Fitts. Half of that group received the meditation sessions and the other half, a control group, were placed in health education classes. All students wore blood pressure monitors 24 hours a day.

The control group did not have any reduction in blood pressure, according to the study in the American Journal of Hypertension.

Additional benefits

One in four adults have hypertension, which is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and health officials say teens who have higher-than-normal blood pressure are more likely to develop the chronic disease when they're older.

"It's no longer considered to be an adult disease," said Vernon Barnes, a physiologist at the medical college and lead author of the study.

Meditation is just one of several things -- including healthy eating, exercise and even medication -- that can help lower blood pressure, said Dr. Elizabeth Ofili, chief of cardiology at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

She added that people regularly need to have their blood pressure checked: "It's never too early to be aware of the risk of blood pressure."

Besides reducing their blood pressure, students who meditated also had lower rates of absenteeism, school rule violations and suspensions than those in the control group, Barnes said.

"It's noteworthy for educators -- meditation might be included in the school day as a program for reducing stress in the schools," Barnes said.

Fitts said he now meditates 45 minutes each morning.

"I make peace with me," he said.

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Detroit Schools to slash 3,200 jobs  

Deficit-cutting move deals regional economy another blow

By Christine MacDonald and Doug Guthrie, The Detroit News, 4/2/04

The cuts at a glance

* District officials will cut 3,200 jobs, including 900 teaching positions.

* Some layoffs could be effective as early as mid-April.

* Officials say they won't target teachers in shortage areas, including math, science, English, special education and bilingual education.

* The district's cuts are aimed at trimming $78 million from this year's budget and at least $30 million from next school year's budget, which is projected to grow to $108 million next year if cuts aren't made.

The Detroit school district will cut 3,200 positions, 900 of them teaching jobs, by this summer — a move that could mean larger class sizes, a smaller number of electives and fewer custodians and security officers in schools.

The district is trying to whittle a ballooning budget deficit that has gone from $78 million this year to a projected $108 million by next year. Officials blame declines in state money and student enrollment, along with increases in retirement and health care costs.

The reductions are the latest blow to southeast Michigan, which already has seen 300,000 jobs disappear since 2001. And they are a precursor to more layoffs at school districts across Michigan, such as Birmingham, Plymouth and New Haven, which expect to send pink slips to staff in coming weeks.

The school job cuts also have the potential to drive away even more parents and students at a time when the mayor and others have tied Detroit’s renewal to the success of the school district. The 151,000-student district has lost 29,500 students in the past eight years.

“We were already struggling,” said Detroiter Belinda Jones, who said the layoffs reaffirm her decision to take her eighth-grade daughter out of the district. “This just puts us at a further deficit. I can’t risk my kids.”

Officials said the district will work to hold class sizes steady, despite the teacher layoffs, but wouldn’t guarantee they won’t rise. Until officials see how many students enroll next year, they won’t know if class sizes will rise.

“A lot of care has been taken to make sure it doesn’t impact the core academic achievement goals we’ve set,” school board President Bill Brooks said. “There is no crisis here in terms of kids learning in the DPS system.”

Most of the 900 teaching positions likely will be eliminated through retirements and resignations, union officials said. The district has 9,000 teachers.

District CEO Kenneth Burnley said officials will try to stay away from teachers in shortage areas, such as math and science. Those who will be laid off will be notified at the end of the month.

Some of the nonteacher layoffs could take effect as early as mid-April, Burnley said.

School officials couldn’t say which 2,300 nonteaching positions will be cut, but Burnely said no one is immune. Thursday’s cuts in the $1.5 billion budget follow an announcement last month that an additional 450 administrators could lose their jobs. The district has 23,800 employees.

“We simply have got to say ‘Here is the revenue we are going to get and here is where we have to get our staffing level given our revenue,’ ” Burnley said.

Math teacher Linardo Hines, 48, said the staff at A.L. Holmes Elementary School thinks most of them will survive cuts. But, he said, he believes the move could harm the quality of education.

“We have enough problems now, and they are talking about cutbacks,” Hines said.

Diann Woodard, president of the Detroit Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, criticized Burnley for notifying employees so close to the end of the year and questioned whether his plan to improve the district is working. She said he should resign.

“He has failed our system,” Woodard said.

Burnley has said the district has seen improvements in areas including test scores, tighter financial oversight and kindergarten programs since he’s been at the district. He said most of the financial troubles are out of his control.

Enrollment critical

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has put himself in the center of the debate over improving the district, said the layoffs add urgency to stop dwindling enrollment.

The cuts will squeeze the schools hard if the district loses younger teachers enthusiastic about teaching inner-city students, he said.

“We need those people on the front lines,” Kilpatrick said.

“It’s terrible. Cities and school districts around the country are catching it. It’s a bad economic time.”

Whether it’s in public schools or private companies, southeast Michigan has continued to lose jobs even as some areas of the country begin to see evidence of a recovery.

State unemployment numbers released Thursday show the labor market in Metro Detroit has become relatively flat.

“Everything was pretty stable over the month,” said Jim Rhein, a Michigan Office of Labor Market Information economic analyst. “Considering the last four years or so, stable is good.”

School funding

Some said the cuts Detroit is making point to the need for the state to fix the way schools are funded.

Funding is directly tied to the student. In next year’s proposed budget, the minimum per student funding is $6,700.

David Olmstead, a school financing expert and former Detroit school board member, thinks the district can absorb the cuts in the immediate future, but in the next couple of years the state needs to solve its school funding problems.

The Senate Wednesday nixed an effort that would have given extra money to districts with declining enrollments. And in the proposed state budget, Detroit could lose another $15 million it has gotten since the state took over the district in 1999.

“These are real hammer blows (to Detroit),” Olmstead said. “It’s imperative for the state to figure out the adequate cost of educating students in Detroit.”

Possible closings

In addition to the layoffs, school officials say they are looking at closing three schools to save cash: Chandler Elementary, Jones Elementary/Middle School and George Ford Elementary.

Chandler’s possible closing made audiologist Brenda McDowell “heartsick.”

“This part of town is so in need,” said McDowell, who does hearing evaluations of students at the east side school.

Sekona Dubose, 8, can see her grandmother’s house from Chandler, where she is a third- grader.

“Both her mother and dad work, so she’s with me before and after school,“ said the girl’s grandmother, Sarah Dubose, 61. “It is so close.

“They were talking about walking these kids to Hutchinson. That’s 14 blocks away. That’s too far.”

Detroit officials said they hope the cuts — which also include reductions in travel expenses, supplies and overtime — save the district $135 million.

Burnley said he also plans to look for savings by reopening contract negotiations with the Detroit Federation of Teachers over raises it negotiated for its members, about 3 percent to 4.1 percent a year depending on seniority.

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Janna Garrison said the district hadn’t told her they planned to reopen the contract.

“We haven’t gotten to that point,” Garrison said.

Other options

Ruby Newbold, chairwoman of the coalition of 12 Detroit Public Schools unions, said she doesn’t think the district has exhausted all of its cost-cutting options.

“They need to look at the number of consultants they have,” Newbold said. “That would show good faith.”

Jennifer Lofton is a long-term substitute social studies teacher at Kettering High School. She said she’s heard fiscal warnings before and has learned the end result frequently isn’t as dire.

“My big concern is how it will affect the students,” Lofton said. “I’ll work somewhere. I’d rather it was in Detroit because I actually have hope.”

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Nebraska shuns state tests  

Schools get leeway to judge progress

Tracy Dell'Angela, Chicago Tribune

LA VISTA, Neb. -- Instead of filling in bubbles on a multiple-choice exam, 10th grader Monica Miller scribbles a quick paragraph to show her teacher she understands the symbolism in a short story she just read.

Macy Morrison, 8, opens an online portfolio to review her scores on math problems that test her reasoning skills. Kyle Dunbar reads to a 5th-grade classmate, who will offer suggestions about how to improve his fluency.

In schools on the outskirts of Omaha, this is how teachers decide whether their students have mastered reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Here, students aren't pushed to do well on 50-minute tests that will determine whether their teachers and their schools are considered successful--the kind of pressure faced across Illinois as children take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

With criticism mounting over implementation of the federal accountability law and states scrambling to overhaul their testing systems to comply, Nebraska alone has succeeded in saying no to mandatory statewide tests.

The state has persuaded federal education officials to approve the nation's most unorthodox assessment system, which allows school districts to use portfolios to measure student progress.

For this, Nebraska education Commissioner Douglas Christensen has been hailed as a visionary and derided as an obstructionist.

"I don't give a damn what No Child Left Behind says," Christensen said. "I think education is far too complex to be reduced to a single score. We decided we were going to take No Child Left Behind and integrate it into our plan, not the other way around. If it's bad for kids, we're not going to do it."

Nebraska's system is far from perfect--it is expensive, time consuming for teachers and makes comparisons among districts difficult. The system works here in part because of the state's small school districts and homogeneous population. Few imagine it would be possible in Illinois, especially in a huge urban district such as Chicago.

But critics of No Child Left Behind--and the high-stakes testing mania it has spawned--say Nebraska's example proves that educators can create a different kind of accountability system that meaningfully measures student learning.

Districts have own methods

Nebraska's 517 school districts design their own assessment systems: a portfolio of teachers' classroom assessments, district tests that measure how well children are meeting locally developed learning standards, a state writing test and at least one nationally standardized test included as a reality check.

These are submitted to state education officials and a team of outside testing experts for review, and the districts are rated not just on the proficiency of their students but on the quality and reliability of their testing portfolio.

Federal education officials said Nebraska's system passed muster because the state's constitution guarantees local control over school accountability and the state was able to demonstrate that the assessments were valid and reliable. However, Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education, said he still favors statewide testing systems to ensure that standards are comparable in every school.

That method "has a certain efficiency that most states prefer," Hickok said. "But the federal law doesn't say you can only have one test. People shouldn't think No Child Left Behind is the only way you hold students accountable or measure student achievement."

Nationwide, teachers in thousands of districts already use such comprehensive portfolios; they just are not used by state and federal officials to determine whether the schools are making academic progress.

Illinois Supt. of Education Robert Schiller, whose former district in Maryland experimented with portfolio assessment with mixed results, said he applauds Nebraska's efforts to do something other states have been unable or unwilling to do.

"It's admirable, but it's also very, very difficult," Schiller said. "Absolutely, a portfolio system is much more representative than a one-time assessment. But it's a very time-consuming process, and very difficult in districts where you have lots of students transferring and high turnover of teachers."

At Portal Elementary in La Vista, 2nd grader Macy Morrison can see for herself that she's making progress. She has been taking tests since school started. By the end of the year, her teacher will send the district 33 measures of Macy's progress in reading, writing and math.

During a recent visit, Macy was reading an "Arthur" book into a microphone on a computer. This test measures Macy's fluency--a rare example in which speech is actually measured for state standards--and when she's finished she knows exactly what she should do to improve.

"My expression was just right, but I'm still getting there on my smoothness because I had a lot of stops," Macy said, clicking to a bar chart of her progress during 2nd grade. Tests make Macy a little nervous, but she knows they are important--and her reasons have nothing to do with the reputation of her school.

"We take these tests so we can learn more and the teachers can see how we're doing," she said.

Better than the alternative

Sixth-grade teacher Melissa McCain knows some of her Nebraska colleagues think their jobs would be easier with state-ordered tests. But after the year she spent teaching in Texas--where children take high-stakes tests every year--she's convinced the extra work beats the alternative.

"Everything was about the test in Texas. The pressure was great. I would have kids who got sick on test day, they were so stressed out," McCain said. "Here, we are assessing our kids every day. I have more flexibility to meet the needs of individual kids."

Despite all the hand-wringing over the federal law, No Child Left Behind isn't even a factor for most of the schools in this largely rural state.

Only 159 of Nebraska's 517 school districts are on the federal radar because the others are so small they don't trigger the law's threshold of 30 students testing in any one group--whether by grade, race or income level.

One of the criticisms of the Nebraska system is that it doesn't guarantee uniform standards across districts--thus, a student might pass reading in one district but not be able to meet standards in another.

These differences in assessment systems are clearly visible in three neighboring districts just outside Omaha.

State education leaders have praised the fifth-largest district in the state, Papillion-La Vista, for developing an exemplary system. The standards are high and validated by national test scores. The district trains its teachers constantly. The teachers control the assessments. The students view tests as a natural part of their school day.

"You will never hear us talking about getting ready for a big test. We will never compare the performance of schools in our district," said Jef Johnston, the district's assistant superintendent. "The only thing we will ever tell our principals is that, wherever you are now, you have to do better next year.

"What keeps teachers from cheating? Nothing, except honesty and the desire to do the right thing for kids."

In the Millard school district, an affluent suburban district with 19,000 students, proficiency is measured solely by district-designed multiple-choice and short-answer tests. Teachers here don't create portfolios, but do give a national standardized test and state writing tests as required. District officials said they never considered moving to classroom assessments because they want to guarantee their students have a base level of skills that can be measured by a single test.

School officials in Ralston, a 3,000-student district where a quarter of the students are low-income, are under pressure to design a more rigorous testing program after state officials rated the district's assessments unacceptable.

The district reported that 76 percent of its students passed reading standards and about 97 percent were proficient in math. But district officials acknowledge their tests were too easy and didn't match up with much lower scores seen on the national Stanford exams, where about 58 percent of Ralston elementary pupils scored above average in reading and 60 percent in math.

Jerry Riibe, Ralston's new assistant superintendent, said he remains committed to the idea that children are best assessed in the classroom and is confident the district can create a more reliable program.

"The easy thing to do would be to write a test and give it to everyone," Riibe said. "But it doesn't give teachers the information they need to improve learning. You can make classroom assessments work, as long as you're willing to trust your teachers and invest the time and effort it takes."

Teachers know best

Christensen said Nebraska's system is unusual because it rests on a revolutionary concept: Teachers know better than tests whether students are learning, and they can be trusted to make that happen.

"Educators have never been in control of their craft," said Christensen, a former all-state quarterback who trained for the ministry before settling on a teaching career. "What makes our system work is it speaks to the heart of teachers."

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No Child Left Behind? Children Will Be Left Behind  

By Dan Seligman, Forbes Magazine

George Bush's school accountability law, enacted to much fanfare two years ago, is something of a fraud. It cannot possibly perform as advertised.

The No Child Left Behind law, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming majorities two years ago, has a giant problem--one that will cause the act to fail. But no one discusses this problem in public.

Even the law's fiercest critics--who now include just about all our country's prominent Democrats--seem not to have noticed the real problem. And it certainly will not be pointed up by such longtime enthusiasts as the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce and numerous high-profile chief executives. They like the "accountability" the law promises to deliver. They like its incentive system, which steers funding to successful schools (as measured by test scores) and penalizes the failures. They like the higher standards for teachers, and the threat these pose to the teachers' unions. They are even learning to love the US Department of Education, which now spends $55.6 billion a year administering No Child and other federal programs, and they are presumably pleased that Ronald Reagan welshed on his 1980 campaign promise to ax the agency.

Last year was the first in which the entire No Child machinery was up and running, and we learned a few things about how it will work. The then-current crop of news stories reflects the exasperation of local school officials, who did not expect so much paperwork and gripe about "unfunded mandates." Another familiar story line centers on the shock of administrators at first-rate schools when told they are "failing" (or at least that term keeps getting into the headlines).

The alleged failure often involves technicalities. No Child's authors were determined to forestall cheating by principals, many of whom had long boosted their schools' test scores by encouraging poor students to stay home on days when big tests were given. So the new law provided that 95% of all students--and in some cases 95% of each ethnic group within the school--had to participate. Inevitably, some schools were flunked because they only had, say, 94.6%. As this article goes to press, several states--Virginia, Minnesota and Utah among them--look like they might opt out of No Child, as the law allows them to do. Any such decision would mean a loss of some federal funding for education but would lift the new regulatory burden.

And yet the law's main problem continues to be unrepresented in the news stories. The problem is that some students are not smart enough to do well on tests. This might be considered too obvious to mention but for some astounding details about No Child. For openers, it proposes to eliminate--not reduce, eliminate--the "achievement gap" between prosperous and impoverished students. The gap is tremendous and in large measure reflects socioeconomic IQ differences. The states with the most students eligible for the federal free/reduced lunch program (a fairly good indicator of poverty status) reliably produce the lowest reading and math scores.

But No Child's IQ problem is not just a matter of social class differences. The law also states, insanely, that by 2014 all American students must be "proficient" in reading and math. Any school at which this doesn't happen will suffer severe penalties, up to and including a takeover by the state. Yet the shape of the bell curve guarantees that most schools will fail. No amount of accountability, incentives and superduper teaching can possibly get all the kids in any sizable school up to 100% proficiency by 2014. The act supported by all those hardheaded businessmen is utterly utopian.

To be sure, 2014 is ten years off. But during those years each state must continually demonstrate that it is making "adequate yearly progress" at a rate that will take it from present levels of proficiency to 100% by 2014. And the yearly progress requirements have had perverse effects in many school districts. In some states the effect has been to lower academic standards.

No Child is lowering standards? How can that be? The answer resides in the fact that in order to make the new law seem manageable its authors gave the states some wiggle room in defining "proficient." No Child envisions four levels of mastery for each subject: "Advanced" is highest, followed by "proficient," "basic," and (the lower depths) "below basic." This four-tiered schema was copied from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has regularly surveyed the academic achievements of American kids since 1969. But--critical detail--the states were not required to embrace the NAEP definitions of those terms. In the NAEP tests, proficiency is defined as "solid academic performance É demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter É and analytic skills appropriate to the subject matter."

The definition is, to be sure, fuzzy, but it comes accompanied by some test questions that make it real and that guarantee most students will be nowhere near proficient. In the 2003 NAEP sample only 27% of the country's eighth graders were proficient or better in math; 33% were below basic. So, looking at their new situation, the states decided overwhelmingly not to go for the NAEP standards.

But that was not all: It also sank in that their yearly progress burdens would be lower if their standards were lower. A lower standard means that a higher proportion of students will already be close to proficient, which means in turn that the required annual progress will be less demanding. Only three states (Louisiana, Delaware and Connecticut) opted for the NAEP standards. All the others understandably decided either to stick with their traditional standards, which were lower than NAEP's, or to reduce their standards further. I spoke recently with Sharif Shakrani, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board (the policy board that runs NAEP), who said crisply: "I can understand that. If the states make [the standards] tighter, they will just have more that are failing."

But holding down standards does not entirely solve the states' problems with No Child. For one thing, there are limits to how low you can go. If standards begin to seem a travesty, you get howls from the parents. And with any kind of meaningful standards at all, 100% proficiency is impossible. Robert Linn, the new president of UCLA's respected National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, recently observed that it would be an enormous challenge just getting 100% of kids to NAEP's "basic" level.

Nobody can say for sure how the drama will play out, but one way or another, No Child will be changed. Its goals are wildly unrealistic, and a sizable fraction of the educators now caught up in the process know it's unrealistic. As the late economist Herbert Stein famously said, "If something can't go on forever, it will stop." He was talking about financial deficits, but he might as well have been talking about deficient thinking in educational reform.

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School choice plans deserve a closer look

Newsday Opinion

What's the usual political answer to government failure? Spending more taxpayer dollars, naturally. That is the overwhelming and largely bipartisan political response to faltering public schools, as we saw with the Zarb commission's unwise funding proposals released last week.

Democrats long have been a tool of the teachers' unions. But New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki and the GOP majority in the State Senate love throwing money at education as well. According to a December report from the State Education Department, state expenditures on public schools jumped by about 80 percent during the Pataki years of 1995 to 2003. Of course, local school expenditures increased as well, just not as fast.

The New York State Court of Appeals also called for more public school spending in a case last June. The court instructed state lawmakers to "ascertain the actual cost of providing a sound basic education in New York City," and make the necessary changes by July 30, 2004.

In response to the court, Pataki asked a commission, led by Frank Zarb, to figure out how much more money should be spent to develop reforms and improve accountability. The commission called for additional costs ranging between $2.5 billion and $5.6 billion. Some reform proposals make sense, but others would accomplish little.

What's truly outrageous is any notion that public schools in New York need more funds. According to State Education Department data, New York State spent $12,265 per public school pupil in 2001-02, and New York City $11,627. The commission reported that New York State spends more per pupil than any other state in the nation, topping the national average by 47 percent.

Zarb and company, though, did acknowledge "the uncomfortable fact that there is no compelling evidence that more money alone will improve education in the poorly performing schools." Given New York's stratospheric levels of spending, more money is destined to be wasted.

One reform measure that would provide opportunities for immediate and significant improvements for many students is school choice that includes private and religious schools. Predictably, the commission did not endorse such choice.

That's unfortunate, because school choice programs in various states are helping parents and students. The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation publishes an informative handbook called "The ABCs of School Choice." It notes that Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania offer tax credits to individuals or corporations that contribute to nonprofit organizations supplying scholarships to students, usually according to financial need, to attend private or parochial schools. Illinois and Minnesota provide tax deductions or credits for family education expenses, including private tuition.

Colorado and Florida present choice options for students assigned to failing public schools. Florida also provides scholarships to students with disabilities if their parents are unhappy with their public schools. Perhaps most famously, the cities of Cleveland and Milwaukee have established voucher or scholarship programs that expand choice to private and religious schools. In 2002-03, 5,281 students received vouchers in Cleveland and 11,670 did so in Milwaukee.

In addition, in January, President George W. Bush signed into law a five-year pilot voucher program for low-income students in the District of Columbia who are attending poorly performing public schools.

The Friedman Foundation notes a variety of studies showing that school choice often improves student academic performance, provides high levels of parental satisfaction, and through competition enhances public school performance.

Politicians in New York love talking about the importance of a sound education. But children and taxpayers long have been shortchanged. Choice - not more taxpayer dollars - will make educators accountable and responsive to children and parents.

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Milwaukee's school voucher program rocked by scandal  

Tuition paid for no-shows: Efforts to impose academic standards have failed

Juliet Williams, Associated Press/Aurora Beacon News

MILWAUKEEOne school that received millions of dollars through the nation's oldest and largest voucher program was founded by a convicted rapist. Another school reportedly entertained kids with Monopoly while cashing $330,000 in tuition checks for hundreds of no-show students.

The recent scandals have shocked politicians, angered parents and left even some voucher supporters demanding reforms.

The troubles have helped lead to passage of a state law requiring voucher schools to report more financial information to the state. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed it last month.

But so far, efforts to impose more rigorous academic standards on voucher schools have failed.

Milwaukee's 14-year-old voucher program has served as a model for others around the country. It doles out state money to allow poor parents to send their children to private schools. Wisconsin will spend $75 million this year on vouchers for more than 13,000 students.

The schools are required to report virtually nothing about their methods to the state, or to track their students' performance. Proponents say that frees the schools from onerous bureaucracy. But some say the lack of oversight makes them a prime target for abuse.

At the Mandella Academy for Science and Math, school officials admitted signing up more than 200 students who never showed and then cashing $330,000 in state-issued tuition checks, which the principal used to buy, among other things, Mercedes-Benzes for himself and the assistant principal.

Meanwhile, Alex's Academics of Excellence received $2.8 million in voucher money over three years before the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the school's founder, James A. Mitchell, served nearly a decade in prison for a 1971 rape. Unlike their counterparts at public schools, principals and teachers at private schools do not have to undergo criminal background checks.

The state has suspended funding for Alex's because of financial problems, and a judge shut down the Mandella academy earlier this year.

The scandals have upset many, including the parents of the 190 students displaced by Mandella's closing. The principal, David Seppeh, does not have a teacher's license and was not required to submit any information about the school's philosophy or curriculum before receiving upwards of $1 million in voucher funding.

The district attorney's office seized a Mercedes from his home. A criminal investigation is under way.

The Mandella school initially reported an enrollment of 476 students, but 235 of them did not show. Under the voucher program, tuition checks in parents' names are sent straight from the state to the school. Parents sign a waiver authorizing the school to cash their checks, but if they later pull out, it is up to the school to notify the state and return the money.

In Mandella's case, some parents who initially considered sending their children to Mandella but changed their minds said they were not aware that they were signing a waiver or that checks in their name were sent to the school.

The telephone number Seppeh listed on his application to the state has been disconnected, and The Associated Press could not locate another listing for him. Seppeh has said that he does not believe he was stealing because he and his wife invested thousands in the school.

(It is not clear how the school came to be called Mandella, spelled with two "l's," unlike the name of South Africa's Nelson Mandela.)

As for academics at Mandella, Sinicki said no one has any idea how the students were doing.

Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Washington, said the demand for greater accountability in public schools has led to a similar debate over voucher programs.

"Now people are saying, 'Geez, if the public schools have to meet this level of accountability, why shouldn't the private schools also?'" he said.

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Coalition Argues for Ambassador Hotel  

The group offers the L.A. school district alternatives to razing the landmark.

By Jean Merl, Times Staff Writer, 4/2/04

A coalition of preservationist, civic, labor and entertainment industry groups on Thursday turned up the heat on Los Angeles school officials to save the historic Ambassador Hotel while transforming it into a complex of badly needed campuses.

The newly formed A+ (Ambassador Plus) Coalition called on the Los Angeles Unified School District to preserve all of the long-closed landmark's main building, plus its storied Cocoanut Grove nightclub.

Officials of the district, which bought the Wilshire District site in December 2001, are considering five alternatives for using its 24 acres for an elementary, middle school and high school complex for about 4,400 students. The options range from complete demolition to the preservation and renovation for school use of all or parts of the hotel and the attached nightclub. The hotel is where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated the night he won the 1968 California presidential primary, and the nightclub showcased some of the nation's top entertainers.

Preservationists announced their coalition of more than 40 groups at a news conference as the school district staff prepared to recommend a development plan to the board of education in about three weeks.

"History will be tangible to these students because they will be able to reach out and touch it," said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the architectural preservationist group that has led the fight for the two options that would preserve the most of the main hotel structure.

Preservationists envision converting the Embassy Ballroom into a library and the once-elegant lobby into a student and community gathering area. The rooms above — whose occupants included novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and every president from Hoover to Nixon — would be gutted, reinforced and re-created as modern classrooms. They also want to save the Paul Williams-designed coffee shop.

Costs and time, however, are concerns for the district. Officials say maximum preservation would cost $381 million, about $95 million more than it would to demolish the hotel and build an entirely new campus. Maximum preservation would also take a year longer, they say.

Advocates of saving most of the site acknowledge the costs of saving more of the 83-year-old structure would be greater, but they say that the district's estimates of the differences are inflated and that the work would take just six months longer. It would yield 25% more classroom space than would the demolish-and-rebuild plan, they said.

They said at least some of the extra costs could be offset with state parks bond funds (the hotel's expansive lawns could be used for athletic fields and picnic areas), historic preservation tax credits and fundraising drives.

But there are other pressures on the school district, which is trying to build about 120 schools to relieve overcrowding. In November, a community group calling itself RFK-12 called for the hotel's demolition to build a school for kindergarten through 12th grade as soon as possible.

A former Kennedy aide who was wounded in the assassination said building a new school would be a more fitting tribute to the slain leader than erecting a memorial or preserving the kitchen hallway where he was shot.

About 6,900 school-age children live within half a mile of the site; 3,800 of them are bused to schools in other neighborhoods, according to the district.

"Building the Ambassador school quickly and at a reasonable price is absolutely essential to begin to solve this puzzle," said Victor Viramontes of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, part of the RFK-12 group.

"Spending school construction money on preserving this hotel building is unacceptable," Viramontes said. "While we support preservation, we will not do so at the expense of educating our children."

School Board President Jose Huizar, whose district includes the hotel site, said that, although he appreciates the "historic, social and cultural value" of the Ambassador site, "the educational program is of paramount importance."

"We will try to balance all the interests," Huizar said, but he added that he was reluctant to spend more than necessary on the site.

"Every dollar we put into the Ambassador is money we take away from other parts of the district," Huizar said, "so we have to be very thoughtful about what we do."

Supt. Roy Romer said he hoped that the board could make its decision in about two months. "It will be a balanced solution," Romer said of the staff proposal. "That's the thing we're reaching for — an appropriate memory but without an excessive expense.

"We believe we have a balanced solution and a creative one in the works, and we'll be able to talk about it in about three weeks."

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Education Is Va. Lawmakers' Sticking Point  

By Chris L. Jenkins, Washington Post Staff Writer, April 4, 2004

RICHMOND, April 2 -- The debate over spending that has divided the Virginia General Assembly for the past three months has come down to one main issue: How much should the state government pay for public education?

While still divided over taxes, the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Delegates have found some common ground over how much Virginia can afford to spend on transportation, public safety and health care. But they are nearly $1 billion apart on how much more to spend on Virginia's 214 school divisions over the next two years.

The debate goes beyond the question of dollars and cents: The two sides differ on how the commonwealth should fulfill the educational guidelines codified in the state constitution more than 30 years ago.

"Education is the difference in a nutshell between us and the House," said Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), author of the chamber's $60 billion budget plan.

When the regular session of the General Assembly ended March 16, the two chambers were deadlocked on how much to tax and spend in the next two years, and they began a special session the next day.

Some House Republicans are working on a compromise they plan to present this week, but the budget negotiators for the House and Senate have remained in a stalemate throughout the special session.

The Senate budget would increase education spending by $1.7 billion over two years. Under that plan, the state would be able to pay its share of the basic cost of educating students under Virginia's Standards of Quality guidelines. Those figures are based on actual costs that localities paid in fiscal 2002, as well as some other expenses, including paying for the increase in students and higher benefit contributions to school employees.

The Standards of Quality address a wide range of expenses, including teacher salaries and supplying the state's 1.1 million students with supplies and books. The added cost to the state for updating the amount of money paid to localities totals about $1.1 billion, according to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

The Senate's plan also would pay for new requirements recommended by the State Board of Education and included in legislation the General Assembly passed last month, although many school divisions funded those measures in their budgets. Among the requirements are staffing for art and music classes and a planning period to allow teachers to prepare for classes.

Senators said that by fully funding these initiatives, they are relieving the financial pressure on local school systems. For years, localities have said that they are unable to control the rise in property taxes because the state is not funding its educational requirements adequately.

The senators say the state must give the localities the money to meet the standards that the state imposes. They also point out that their budget will give school systems the funds to meet the new testing requirements designed by the state, known as the Standards of Learning.

"What's the point of passing educational standards if you're not going to make the money available to fund them?" asked Sen. Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), the Senate majority leader who is serving on the chamber's budget negotiating team.

The House says its $58.3 billion budget would increase education spending by about $811 million over two years. Delegates acknowledge that their plan does not fund all of the mandates in the Standards of Quality, but several said that they are responsible for helping the localities pay for the standards only if the money is available.

"We don't fully return money to the localities, but being able to do so is not the reality we're living in," said Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News). "Would I like to be able to fund everything? Yes. But we are bound only to what we believe is doable" with existing revenue.

Hamilton said he does not believe it was a contradiction to pass new standards for localities, even if the state is not able to fund them.

"It's a good faith effort to say we believe in this, and when we can fund this, we will," he said.

State legal analysts said that lawmakers are responsible under the state constitution to fund their educational guidelines.

"There is an implicit mandate to fund those standards, once they are set," said A.E. Dick Howard, a professor of law at the University of Virginia and chief architect of the state's revised constitution in 1970. "But it does stop short of a judicial mandate . . . it's more of a moral obligation."

Many other states struggle with the question of how to finance the educational standards they have adopted. In Maryland, an initiative known as the Thornton plan requires the state to add $1.3 billion a year into public education by 2008 to eliminate disparities between rich and poor school districts and ensure that every child in Maryland receives a decent education.

But as in Richmond, lawmakers in Annapolis have not come to consensus on how to pay for the initiative. Last year, they added a stipulation requiring future legislatures to decide whether the state has the resources to move ahead or whether the program should be scaled back. This year, the Democratic House wants to raise money through tax increases, while the Democratic Senate and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) want to generate new revenue for education by legalizing slot machine gambling.

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More school districts move toward mergers  

By STACI HUPP, Register Staff Writer, 4/04/2004

The Fox Valley school district, which draws students from Milton and Cantril, is merging with nearby Van Buren. With 51 students, Fox Valley is one of 34 Iowa districts this year with fewer than 250 students.

But as the number of students dwindled, Fox Valley's cost for salaries, insurance and other items has grown. Because of a state program called the budget guarantee, the district's general fund budget has remained relatively stable. The program, which ensures that the amount of money districts have to spend doesn't decline with enrollment, is being phased out beginning next school year.

So instead of struggling to make ends meet, Fox Valley officials and townspeople decided to merge their district with Van Buren.

"We have pride, but we also know the time has come," said Superintendent Jerry Knoll, who will be out of a job in July. "If you can't have the high-quality academic programs, then kids are not going to get a good start.

"When it comes down to finishing high school and getting scholarships and going on to college, the great majority of kids who go to four-year schools are in large districts."

More Iowa school districts are expected to wave the white flag as classroom roll calls get shorter, budget cuts run deeper and state officials hand out financial breaks in exchange for school mergers.

Fox Valley and Van Buren are one of three school mergers expected in Iowa next year. The districts are a year or two ahead of the curve, education officials say.

Lawmakers and state education officials who want to protect Iowa's standing as a national leader in education have pushed for more school mergers, which enable districts to pay for good teachers and classes, they say.

State officials will dangle money and tax breaks in front of schools to sell them on the idea. Meanwhile, money will run out for a program that offers incentives for districts to share students and for budget guarantees.

Smaller districts can't keep up with their bigger counterparts in the running for good teachers and academic programs. Some risk falling below state requirements for classes as a result, education officials say.

Milton faces changing times

In Milton, elderly residents outnumber children, whose families move out of state for better jobs. Of the children still living in the town, 80 percent are from poor families.

Ted Roberts watched his dad's service station fold. He's seen half the Main Street businesses leave town. The schoolhouse, he said, is the logical next thing to go.

"It's pretty sad, but I think it's just inevitable," said Roberts, a truck driver who graduated from Fox Valley in 1972.

The hallways at Fox Valley junior-senior high school in Milton were as thick as the nearby cornfields when Roberts was a boy.

Now an elementary school, three children enrolled in this year's first-grade class.

Fox Valley and Van Buren started to share middle and high schools two years ago.

The arrangement gave Fox Valley's older students access for the first time to calculus, advanced science classes, industrial arts, four years of foreign languages and a high school softball team.

The elementary school, however, still lacks a certified physical education teacher, gifted and talented program director, guidance counselor, elementary school principal and other basic employees. Knoll and his teachers juggle all of the jobs.

Some elementary school classes are so small that students in different grades share teachers.

The make-do approach has pushed out some of the very students Fox Valley needed to survive. Cliff and Heidi Shafranek of Milton moved their 11-year-old son to Van Buren two years ago.

"He wasn't learning how to read, and they weren't teaching him," said Heidi Shafranek, who graduated from Fox Valley High School in 1992. "He was getting into trouble because he was frustrated. Things are better now."

Mergers offer students a well-rounded education, said Thomas Alsbury, an Iowa State University education professor who studied school mergers in eight states.

Bigger schools add more flexibility to schedules, which means more options for gifted programs, basic classes and special education, Alsbury said.

Students also are exposed to more specialized classes in larger schools, he said. In tiny districts, one teacher might be in charge of middle and high school science.

"It's very typical that a science teacher would be trained more in biological sciences or in physical sciences, but it's uncommon to be trained in both," Alsbury said.

Number of districts in Iowa declining

The number of school districts in Iowa has shrunk from 4,600 half a century ago to 370 this year.

State officials see even fewer districts in the coming years. Some districts already are taking steps toward consolidation with shared school buildings and superintendents.

"I think some of them are now kind of getting into that situation where they've had declining enrollment and budget cuts, and they're starting to explore it," said Eric Heitz, a school improvement consultant for the Iowa Department of Education.

Money and tax breaks encourage those partnerships.

Incentives to share schools will cost taxpayers more than $7 million this year, state records show. With merged districts entering the mix, the state's expense will grow to $8.3 million next year.

In two years, state officials will pull the plug on rewards for student-sharing programs. The entire pot will go to merged districts instead, in hopes that more districts take that route.

It worked for Little Rock and George, whose 12-year sharing agreement is believed to be a state record.

The two northwest Iowa districts merged last fall. Money was the push both sides needed to seal the deal, said Superintendent Joanne Smith.

"Twelve years sounds like a long time, but sometimes it takes that long to get everybody on board," Smith said. "I think they probably would have reorganized sooner had the incentive been there."

The same goes for the Aplington and Parkersburg school districts, which have shared a middle and high school for more than a decade. School officials watched enrollment slip by 10 percent during the same span, a $100,000 loss.

State incentives will restore the money when the two districts merge in the fall.

The beauty of such long courtships is that they make marriage easier, Superintendent Pat Morgan said.

Districts that share schools also begin sharing budgets, teachers, students and athletics. The touchy aspects of sharing - especially picking new school colors and a mascot - are out of the way long before the merger.

Some school districts that aren't ready for the big commitment will share schools next year.

"At least you have a time frame to see whether or not it's a good fit for the two communities," said Rick Pederson, superintendent of the Sumner and Fredericksburg school districts, which will share middle and high schools in the fall.

Fredericksburg freshman Krystal Kunkle has a different kind of uncertainty - the kind that comes with new faces and classrooms with more than 20 students.

Kunkle, 14, is one of three students in an introduction-to-business class.

"If you have a problem, the teacher's right there," Kunkle said. "If there's 50 people in the class, it's hard to have the teacher come to you and help."

Money is the main reason school districts merge, but education officials say the savings are slim. Most school districts already share a superintendent when they merge, and they keep most or all employees on the payroll. State incentives usually offset rising transportation, insurance and support costs.

Officials in the Stanton school district have decided to hold out for bigger financial incentives before disrupting a system that appears to work.

The district of 308 students has a reputation for strong reading programs, good teachers and high expectations for students. Up to 70 students transferred to Stanton this year.

"Just because it looks good on paper doesn't mean it's good for kids," Superintendent Judd Ashley said about mergers.

The Van Buren and Fox Valley school districts will get $20,000 for next year's merger, which Knoll calls "a small drop in the bucket."

State incentives aren't a good reason to consolidate, he said. "There's a much bigger reason, and that is what's best for kids."

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Bush pushes overhaul of vocational education

Scott Lindlaw, Chicago Sun-Times

EL DORADO, Ark. -- President Bush advocated sweeping changes Tuesday to a $1 billion federal program that provides training in vocations like car repair and health care, fast-growing fields that require workers to bring increasing sophistication into the workplace.

Bush also called for creation of $5,000 grants for poor students who emphasize math and science. He would pay for the $100 million annual program by imposing new restrictions on Pell Grants and by tapping private foundations.

The president proposed requiring high-school seniors in every state to take national math and English tests that are mandated only for fourth- and eighth-graders today.

''We're creating new jobs,'' he said. ''The question is, are people going to be prepared to fill those jobs?''

The measures, which would need congressional approval, would require no new spending by the government. They represent election-year initiatives meant to address the economy's slow advance in creating jobs.

The proposals came as Democrat John Kerry focused on job-creation during a visit to Ohio. Kerry reminded listeners that 1.84 million jobs have been lost since Bush took office, and he renewed his pledge to create 10 million jobs.

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer called Bush's initiative ''a phony baloney plan that does nothing more than shift money between programs and doesn't offer a dime to unemployed workers.''

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Kennedy Demands Full Funding for School Bill

Diana Jean Schemo, The New York Times

The words seem to haunt Senator Edward M. Kennedy these days: "a tin cup budget."

That was how Mr. Kennedy's firebrand colleague on the education committee, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, dismissed the No Child Left Behind law, urging Democrats not to support President Bush's showcase issue in the absence of guarantees on future spending.

At the time, Mr. Kennedy was not to be deterred. He negotiated language with the Republicans, corralled Democratic support, showed up at the signing ceremony and spent that spring in a victory tour with President Bush promoting the law.

Now, though, as he takes to the campaign trail for John Kerry, Senator Kennedy has adopted his colleague's very words as he rails against the administration for demanding massive changes from public schools on "a tin cup budget."

Mr. Kennedy, one of the Senate's shrewdest operators, appears to feel personally swindled.

"This is an entirely new concept, a new initiative, a new endeavor," he said in an interview in his office. He likened No Child Left Behind to the enactment of Social Security, and to the race to the moon 40 years ago led by his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

"I believe the exact same type of commitment was made to children," Mr. Kennedy said. He said that Mr. Bush "misstated, misspoke, misrepresented his position" on financing No Child Left Behind.

"This is not a commitment to me," he said. "It is a commitment to the parents, the children, the schools that are trying to carry out this law."

Mr. Kennedy maintained that he supported the law only because he believed President Bush would demand substantial increases in federal spending on elementary and secondary education to achieve the law's goals.

Others scoff at the notion of a consummate politician like Mr. Kennedy being hoodwinked.

"Not a credible historical analysis," said Sandy Kress, the lawyer who represented the White House in Congressional negotiations over No Child Left Behind. "Nobody snookers Ted Kennedy."

No Child Left Behind gives the nation until 2014 to render all students proficient in reading and math. It also requires annual testing of all students in grades 3 to 8, and once in high school, with steadily more severe penalties for schools whose students fail to make sufficient annual progress for two or more years.

Republican leaders contend that Democrats well understood that while the law authorized as much as $80 billion in additional spending on Title I high-poverty schools alone by 2007, that did not mean the full amount would be appropriated.

"I can assure you, cross my heart, that we had many discussions about funding, but there was never a discussion, not one, about funding No Child Left Behind at authorization levels," said John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "It never happened."

Republicans also maintain that under President Bush, spending on the high-poverty schools that are the main concern of No Child Left Behind rose some 42 percent, from nearly $8.8 billion in 2001 to $12.3 billion in 2004. Democrats counter that much of that increase came at their insistence, in defiance of lower budget requests by President Bush.

"The commitment was made on both sides to have a significant increase in No Child Left Behind funding," Mr. Boehner said, adding, "I would argue that we've more than met our commitment."

Disputes over spending on No Child Left Behind began not long after President Bush signed the law in January 2002, and are likely to grow louder as the presidential election approaches.

A recent poll by Education Week and the Public Education Network ranked education second in the list of voter concerns, behind only the economy, and ahead of terrorism, security, health care, prescription drugs and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And 60 percent of those polled said that the federal government did not contribute enough money to public schools.

Mr. Kennedy and his aides said that it was not long after Mr. Bush signed the law that they began suspecting that the money would not match their expectations. Just four weeks after the signing, Mr. Bush released his budget for the 2003 fiscal year, which, while increasing money for high poverty schools, sought a net $90 million cut in spending in areas connected to No Child Left Behind. The next year, the administration proposed a net cut of $1.2 billion.

"The administration has misstated their position on issue after issue," Mr. Kennedy said. "It's nothing terribly new now, but it was at the time."

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Opinion - Shedding light on No Child law

Tom Koenninger editor emeritus of The Columbian

ORLANDO, Fla. - First Lady Laura Bush attempted to cast her calming magic over a large and critical audience here last week at the National School Boards Association annual conference.

School board members and school administrators from across the country listened to her views on education and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. She was preceded by "Superman" Christopher Reeve and followed by Secretary of Education Rod Paige and a host of presenters dedicated to helping schools, teachers and students.

Ridgefield School District and Education Service District 112, based in Vancouver, offered workshop sessions during the conference. Battle Ground School District had a display. About 6,000 attendees came from school districts throughout the nation.

Laura Bush, a former elementary teacher and librarian, said, "the effects of failing to teach children are well documented. Too many students read and write below their grade level. This is not right." Through the NCLB, "schools are held accountable," she asserted. "We must do more to attract the best and brightest and keep them in the classroom."

Bush and Paige supported the two-year-old federal act as an extension of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools.

While her audience was attentive and amused when she described her rookie teaching experience of having a day-long lesson plan covered in 15 minutes, critics of the No Child Left Behind Act were numerous. The law, introduced by President Bush, requires reading and math tests for students and penalizes schools financially if they fail to improve. It is designed to help children who experience difficulty, including minorities, the poor and those with disabilities.

Critics resent its intrusion into what they view as state responsibilities, its complications and the expense. Others term it an "unfunded mandate," lacking sufficient federal dollars.

In defense of No Child Left Behind

Paige pitched the federal act more directly. He acknowledged NCLB critics, and said their views had been heard. As a result, some of the required school attendance standards have been lessened. But he did not back down. He called on school boards to "create an education system worthy of a great nation."

Reminding his audience that he, too, once served as a school district superintendent, Paige said the president's budget for education, at $53.7 billion, "is larger than ever before."

He said he picked up newspapers and was "stunned by the misunderstanding" about a "nonexisting mandate." For one thing, he said, "standards are determined by the states."

School people seeking pure inspiration received it the previous day from Reeve, who played Superman in movies, and was paralyzed in 1995 in a fall from a horse. Speaking from a wheelchair, Reeve said his "core belief" is that nothing is impossible. Every kid can learn. "The shape of this country is formed at the local level," he said. " We reach out to serve kids who live right here." At another point he said, "the future of the country lies in the hands of school boards." He urged support of teachers, and suggested "parents can't micromanage schools."

Reeve spoke of his two brothers and father, all of whom are teachers, and of his father's admonition "get a book" when he said he was bored. Reading, he maintains, opens minds "to embracing diversity and tolerance. You will be laying the foundation for a scholar or student who will excel."

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