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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – April 9 - 16, 2004


Poorly funded preschools still among nation's best
/ Northwest Herald
Ideas pour in for minority kids' success / Rockford Register Star
Madigan slams 'Band-Aid budget' / Crain's Chicago Business
Livingston schools are annexed to Staunton / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Officials Discuss Future of Local Education / Southern Illinoisan
Education crisis calls for action / Pekin Daily Times
Academy gives dropouts second chances / Daily Illini
Teachers offer to forgo retirement gifts / Daily Herald
California schools face funding crisis / Boston Globe
Houston Schools Ease Rules on High School Promotion / New York Times
Nebraska shuns state tests; Schools get leeway to judge progress / Kansas City Star
Kids' drug of choice ... in your medicine cabinet / The Arizona Republic
Perry orders special session to pay for Texas' schools / Houston Chronicle
Vouchers spur lasting achievement gains in MPS schools, study says / Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
School district may try farming out bus service / Las Vegas Sun
A warning on school achievement scores / Washington Post



Poorly funded preschools still among nation's best  

By JAMI KUNZER, Northwest Herald, 4/9/04

Brenda Huemann would like to teach more children. And she wouldn't mind a cost-of-living increase next year.

But like most state-funded preschool providers, she does the most with what she gets.

A recent study ranks Illinois' preschool program as one of the best in the nation despite a lack of funding.

State-funded preschools across McHenry County have gone without cost-of-living increases for at least three years. Many end up with waiting lists, unable to accommodate all the children who qualify.

Yet the services they provide are high quality, according to "The State of Preschool: 2003 State Preschool Yearbook."

The report is the first of its kind released by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

"As far as Illinois' requirements, I think they're a step ahead of everyone else," said Huemann, who has taught and coordinated Johnsburg District 12's pre-kindergarten program at Ringwood School since it began in 1989.

The state program allows no more than 20 children age 3 to 5 in each classroom. One teacher is required for every 10 children. Teachers must have bachelor's degrees and teaching certificates, and complete ongoing training.

High standards result in quality programs, said Steve Barnett, director of the institute that conducted the study to bring more attention and money to the programs as they grow in size.

"If no one's paying attention, legislators and their policymakers are apt to put resources someplace else," he said.

Qualifying for the program

Those who qualify are considered "at-risk," a designation that preschool providers try to avoid because of its negative connotations.

Children go through a screening process that evaluates motor, speech, language and social skills, as well as family histories. Children born premature or whose parents are divorced or poorly educated might qualify.

Nancy Barchard's son, Jake, qualified because he could not skip or hold a pencil very well. Now in kindergarten, Jake has excelled, said Barchard of Johnsburg.

Barchard was pleased when her other son, 3-year-old Nicholas, qualified because he had trouble following directions.

"You shouldn't think of the name 'at-risk' as feeling like your child has a problem," she said. "Basically, you're getting a government-funded program instead of a preschool where you don't know if they follow the same type of learning process as the elementary school where your kids are going to go."

Once qualified, children attend free of charge in most cases. It gives them a jump-start on kindergarten, preschool providers say.

The children's emotional maturity improves as they learn to share, take turns and wait, said Pamela Richards, who teaches District 165's pre-kindergarten program at Evergreen Park School in Union.

The one-classroom program has 18 children on a waiting list.

Many of those who qualify are children who do not speak English as their primary language and who need help learning it, Richards said.

"I've been trying to get another classroom for quite a while," she said. "Everybody's in a tax crunch. Everybody's vying for the same money in some respects."

Finding the money

District 12 asked parents to pay a $65 materials fee for the first time this year because of its limited funds, Huemann said.

The state has agreed to add an extra $29.4 million to its preschool program. For the first time, providers have been told that they can ask for a 3.3 percent cost-of-living increase.

But the extra money likely will help add new programs, not bring in more money to programs that already exist, Huemann said.

The lack of funding creates a tough situation in Huntley's District 158, where officials will have to close one preschool classroom next year, said Meg Schnoor, the district's director of special education. Using some of its own funding, the district offered three classrooms this year.

It received about $75,000 from the state, Schnoor said.

"That's not going to cover much more than a salary," she said.

"The growth is just exploding," she said. "The number of at-risk students followed that growth curve."

In Wonder Lake's District 36, providers get by with $41,000, the state's lowest grant amount, said Janet Emmerich, who started the program in 1999.

The district has chipped in to keep the program alive, Emmerich said, but a failed referendum in March has made her job dependent on next year's grant.

No one argues the importance of the programs, but the state's financial situation is bound to keep funding flat for at least the next few years, said Don Englert, McHenry County regional superintendent.

"I think we all understand money spent at those early years has significant impact on reading achievement and later success in school," he said. "But funds are dear, of course."

Illinois' rankings

The state earned high marks in the first study of state-funded preschool programs throughout the country.

Illinois earned the following rankings when compared with other states:

* Eighth for providing access to 4-year-olds

* Fourth for providing access to 3-year-olds

* 17th for the amount of money spent per child enrolled in preschool

Illinois' total preschool spending: $164 million

State spending per child enrolled: $3,094

Total state program enrollment: 53,000

School districts that offer state program: 77 percent

Spending per child enrolled in state funded preschool programs ranged from $451 in Maine to $10,088 in New Jersey, with a mean of about $3,450 per child.

Most states provided about $2,000 to $4,000 per child.

All data is based on the 2001-02 school year.

SOURCE: The National Institute for Early Education Research study, "The State of Preschool: 2003 State Preschool Yearbook"


Ideas pour in for minority kids' success / Rockford Register Star

Column by Judy Emerson, Rockford Register Star

Seldom have I gotten as much response to a column as I did to the one asking for ideas about how we can increase the number of minority students in the ranks of the School District's high academic achievers.

The suggestions could be sorted into a few broad categories. I got the most responses from people who said high achievers of any race almost always have involved and supportive parents.

A few people said that since schools have limited power to change parents, teachers need to be more creative in teaching kids who have little support from home.

Even as I write those words, I know that teachers all over the city are grinding their teeth and thinking: "Sure, blame the teacher."

Nobody did that, nor am I doing that. It comes down to looking at which factors the district has some control over and which ones it doesn't. Teachers need creative leadership, administrative support and adequate resources.

Some children have lousy parents. Some children have loving parents who want the best for them but don't know how to pull it off. Do we write those kids off?

I don't have the answers, but I know there are examples across the nation of pockets of excellence in schools with a high proportion of minority students, high poverty rates and low parental involvement. How do they do it?

A number of people wrote about how they have stepped up to the plate to tutor or mentor children. Some called for each of the city's many churches to adopt a school or shower it with attention.

A few called for better enforcement of truancy laws. It seems that kids can just skip school for a long time before anyone notices. The people who used to notice and haul those kids back to school have been fired because of the district's budget crunch.

Rockford certified public accountant Mike Sullivan put tongue in cheek to offer this suggestion: He identified three big problems in the Rockford district: overregulation, high labor costs and poor product quality.

So, he said, "Outsource it. Ship the students overseas and pay for their board and bring them back at the end of the year. If we can't do it, let the Communists do it."

I know Mike, and I know he's joking.

But maybe it is time for something radical. We can't continue to accept declining test scores and program reductions and call it an adequate education for the modern world.

A few people wrote to express sadness about what's happening to our schools, in general, because of the budget cuts.

Poet Dan Magnuson sent a poem about his daughter, who loves playing the viola in her middle school orchestra. Band and orchestra may be cut from middle schools next year.

"Here you have a child

growing more literate in the world

already lucid on the Internet

far beyond what I can do;

quite knowing of what's trash

and what can be quite good

in the kingdom of the NowPop:

if it's 'R,' she declines,

Thank God!

And here you have a child

falling for something classical

connecting to our past,

cultivating soul.

And now they're taking them away

all the orchestras in her world.

Who do we think we are

hurting our children in this way?"


Madigan slams 'Band-Aid budget'  

Blagojevich defends decision to hold line on taxes, AP, 4/13/04

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, responding Tuesday to House Speaker Michael Madigan's concerns about his budget plan, said he remains opposed to raising income or sales taxes, even temporarily.

Madigan said Monday said he would support a temporary income tax increase, then noted that the Democratic governor's continued forceful opposition made such a move unlikely. Tuesday, Blagojevich drove that point home.

"If the General Assembly sends me a bill that increases the income or sales tax, whether it be temporary or permanent, I will veto it," Blagojevich said from Chicago.

Madigan's comments Monday offered one of the first glimpses into his thinking on Blagojevich's proposals. The Democrat said he worries the administration is operating on the theory that it can borrow its way out of a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

"We did a Band-Aid budget last year and we're looking at doing another one this year, and that's why the Blagojevich administration is so in favor of borrowing," Madigan said.

The powerful Chicago Democrat made his comments while fielding questions from the public during an appearance at Southern Illinois University. His thoughts on a variety of proposals could help set the stage for negotiations during the final six weeks of the legislative session.

Madigan, who has rarely spoken to reporters over the past year and makes few public speeches, also offered his opinion on Blagojevich's cost-cutting proposal to shutter the downstate prison at Vandalia. Madigan said while he hasn't made a final decision on the matter, he doesn't see why it needs to be closed. He also said he is concerned with the governor's proposal to gut the State Board of Education.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Blagojevich is balancing the budget through spending cuts and eliminating waste.

"We've reduced the state's reliance on borrowing and (we're) balancing the budget by tough choices about where we need to cut and by changing some of the irresponsible budget habits of the past," spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said.

Madigan said he has questions about Blagojevich's proposal to close the Vandalia prison as a cost-cutting move to save the state $32 million. The prison houses 1400 inmates and employs about 450 people.

"I've just got very serious questions regarding that proposal," Madigan said.

Ottenhoff said that while Blagojevich is willing to listen to Madigan's concerns, the governor believes closing the prison will save taxpayers money.

"We still believe that this is a responsible way to both ensure that our prisoners are being housed and guarded adequately and also to use taxpayer dollars more efficiently in a very tight budget year," she said.

Blagojevich also has proposed gutting the independent State Board of Education and giving its duties to a new agency directly under his control. The governor says that would improve education by reducing bureaucracy and increasing accountability.

Madigan said he has "serious concerns" about the idea, but he did not elaborate on his worries or whether he is firmly against the idea. If he lobbied House Democrats to oppose the governor's idea, it would almost certainly fail.

Ottenhoff said the governor will work with the speaker on the proposal, but he believes his plan "is critical to improve accountability in the state's education system."

Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Norris City, said it was good to hear Madigan's opinions on some proposals, although Phelps said he is in full support of the governor's plan to overhaul the state's education system.

"He's up there speaking from the heart, he said a lot of good things today, a lot of truths," Phelps said.

Several audience members expressed concerns about rising medical insurance costs, which they say are driving doctors out of southern Illinois.

Madigan, an attorney, said he doubts the Illinois State Medical Society and the insurance industry will succeed in limiting the size of malpractice lawsuit awards because the state Supreme Court has already ruled caps unconstitutional.


Livingston schools are annexed to Staunton  

By Alexa Aguilar of the Post-Dispatch, 4/13/04

A long, costly and emotional fight formally ended Monday night when the regional boards for both Macoupin and Madison counties voted to annex the Livingston school district to Staunton by July 1.

The regional boards acted after Livingston voters overwhelmingly voted in March to annex the district to Staunton, after months of hostile protests and meetings between the town's two factions. Some residents in the town of about 800 favored annexing to Highland; one Highland supporter, Alan Libbra, has filed objections in Madison County Court.

Those complaints are still pending, but on Monday, the Staunton supporters were only reveling in the technical end to the conflict. The crowd jumped to a standing ovation when the two boards voted.

"It's for real, I can't believe it," a resident in the crowd murmured under her breath, while others cheered and hugged after the meeting adjourned.

For these residents, the 15-minute meeting was the culmination of a yearlong clash over where Livingston students should attend when the district closes at the end of the year. The K-12 district of 220 students is not financially viable.

The pro-Staunton group maintains that Livingston children should attend Staunton because it is five miles away, and the two communities are already intertwined. Libbra and other Highland supporters said that Highland schools are good enough to warrant a 20-mile bus ride.

The pro-Staunton group hosted barbecues and fish frys to pay for the more than $100,000 it has spent on legal fees. Hundreds have taken off work to attend every hearing and meeting. The group's leaders spent hours collecting petitions to place the school question on the ballot, while Libbra has spent thousands of dollars as well, challenging those petitions in court.

"I'm just so happy it's over," said Sara Schlemer, one of the pro-Staunton group's leaders. "I'm ecstatic."

Attorneys for both the Staunton supporters and the Madison County Regional Office of Education said Monday that after the election and annexation vote, they were confident that Libbra's complaint would be dismissed.

Libbra, who could not be reached for comment, filed complaints in Madison County Court challenging the validity of the petitions that placed the school issue on the ballot.

Both the Madison County and appellate court ruled that his complaints could not stop the election from proceeding, and after the March vote, the regional office of education started the annexation process.

Kyle Hlafka, superintendent of Staunton schools, said the district has already begun the transition process. High school students have visited Staunton schools, Livingston students have participated in some athletic tryouts and bus routes are mapped.

His district will receive $1.9 million in state incentives for the consolidation of the two districts. Part of that money will likely go toward air conditioning the elementary building in Livingston and aligning the curriculum for the incoming students, he said.

The Staunton district plans to house pre-K through fourth grade in the Livingston elementary building. The other 120 students will attend Staunton schools.

"We're getting closer," Hlafka said. "We're one step closer after tonight."


Officials Discuss Future of Local Education

Andrea Kampwerth, The Southern Illinoisan

CARBONDALE -- Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees chairman Glenn Poshard Tuesday told an education panel he supported a plan to overhaul the state board of education.

Poshard's testimony was part of the third of three Illinois Senate education committee meetings. It was held in the Carbondale high school gym.

Poshard, a former educator and congressman, along with Carbondale Elementary School District Superintendent Elizabeth Lewin, said they supported Gov. Rod Blagojevich's plan to create a state Department of Education.

Taking issue with the governor's proposals were Steven Sabens, superintendent of Carbondale high school, and several other Southern and south-central Illinois school superintendents. Also represented were several construction contractors from the region.

Sen. Miquel del Valle, D-Chicago, opened the hearing saying there was "no more important (issue in Illinois) than public education." He said the governor was proposing "drastic changes" to the way education is managed. The hearings, he said, were to gather opinions from those who will be affected by any changes.

The two main changes are Senate Bills 3000 and 3001. SB3000, also known as the Department of Education Act, would create a Department of Education headed by a Secretary of Education who would answer directly to the governor. The current Illinois State Board of Education would be relegated to an advisory panel. SB3001 would place the responsibility for school construction on the Capital Development Board.

Joining del Valle were two other members of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, and Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, joined the senators on the panel.

In his testimony, Poshard said, "Changing the system is the only way people will have a direct voice, through their votes, to hold someone accountable for education progress in this state. The governor has asked us to hold him accountable through this change. ... I say, let's do it."

Poshard said teachers need to understand that their lesson plans and attempts to meet state requirements and the changing requirements of the presidential "No Child Left Behind" mandate "mean something."

"I think the system is broken and does need fixing," he said, referring to earlier testimony to the contrary from a superintendent from the Metro East. "There is a basic disconnect in this state between the Illinois State Board of Education and the local teachers."

Lewin, who is a member of the governor-appointed task force to help with the proposed re-structuring, said, "What we really need is clarity, some direction, a person to be held accountable. Let's give this is a chance. We need to put the power back with the voters."

Sabens said he worried about the possibility of loss of local control especially in relation to school construction, and the adverse economic effect that could have on Southern Illinois. He said the new high school building hosting the hearing had been constructed under the school construction grant program, and that he "had reservations" that the good experience of building the new high school would have been the same under the governor's proposal.

"Will this create a new political bureaucracy?" he asked the committee. "Are we certain our children will be improved by this change? Let's move with caution and consider the consequences and the future of our children."

Superintendent Jim Burgett of the Highland Community School District said the governor is "simply not accurate" in "telling the public the ISBE is not doing its job."

"We feel that in short order the governor will be replacing quality with patronage jobs," he said. "The ISBE needs leaders, not buddies. ... Fix the ISBE -- don't eliminate it."

Before the hearing, del Valle said he was pleased the governor had made education such a priority, but hoped there would be the usual negotiation process with the introduction of the two bills. He said the governor had not responded to amendments proposed by the senate so far.

"We extended deadlines on both bills in order for there to be more time for these kinds of public hearings as we had today," del Valle said.

Sabens said he was honored to host the senate hearing. He said the new high school was an appropriate venue because it is a new facility and was built with the help of a school construction grant under the current system.

"People tend to take a very strong position (with education)," he said before the hearing started. "Hopefully everyone has the same end goal in mind -- furthering education in Illinois."


Education crisis calls for action  

By Laura Turner, Daily Times Correspondent, 4/14/04

TREMONT -- There was lots of talk Wednesday about the state's education funding crisis, but no immediate answers were forthcoming for a local school administrator looking for a solution to budget woes.

"I'm not seeing any action," said Pekin District 108 superintendent Don White. "Quite frankly, our district has hit a wall (financially)."

State Rep. Bill Mitchell and Illinois School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller hosted an open forum in the Tremont High School Library for area school superintendents to discuss the state's education crisis.

Mitchell circulated a petition calling for a General Assembly special session, saying if the governor doesn't take action this year, districts will face "fiscal calamities." He also urged those present to press their local representatives "to rally around" education issues in hopes more noise will bring quicker action.

White, however, said more has to happen. "I'm all for a special house session. I will sign his petition; support his efforts. But we've studied this thing to death. We have several plans on the shelf. Let's try one," he said.

Schiller said Illinois is not funneling enough money toward education. With 36 percent of revenue coming from the state, it ranks 49th in funding education.

The lion's share of school dollars, 53 percent, comes from local property taxes. Using zip codes to pay for education creates great discrepancies across the state, leaving poorer communities struggling to keep status quo, let alone improve, Schiller said.

"It's a local responsibility, but most communities don't have the money to keep up with basics. They are tapped out to raise additional funding. We need to ask, 'What is the state's role in education?'

About 80 percent of Illinois schools say they are operating at a deficit. Many have consolidated and reduced staff, among other strategies.

At the same time, student achievement levels are being raised. Schiller described the $400 million Governor Rod Blagojevich earmarked for education is his fiscal year 2005 budget as inadequate.

"Four hundred million sounds good. It's a good sound byte, but it's only a drop in the bucket. It's barely enough to keep current levels going, let alone support needed programs."

He was also critical of the 20-year-old funding formulas used to calculate mandated programs, such as special education and transportation.

Both he and Mitchell agree the state needs to step up its education funding, but disagree on how. Schiller supports taxing certain services, while Mitchell said a sale tax increase would be "volatile." He favors relying more on income taxes to support education. Neither is likely to happen soon if Blagojevich keeps his campaign promise of no new taxes. In the meantime, White is seeking a referendum to be placed on the ballot as early as this November.

He said his district has already eliminated textbook and technology purchases, and will cut teachers next year and extracurriculars in 2006 without an additional $1.8 million. He's saddened to see "an otherwise good district being decimated."

"I'm frustrated beyond belief. We know it's out of our hands. Teachers know what they need to do to do well, but we don't have the revenue to maintain those things," he said.

But in the end, it's the students who ultimately suffer. "We have a population of students that's missing out," he said.


Academy gives dropouts second chances  

By Chris Hubbuch, Daily Illini Staff writer, April 15, 2004

Last fall Jessica Long gave up on school. She had never been a good student and finally stopped going altogether.

"I needed a better life," the 17-year-old said. "High school wasn't for me."

The life she found was working — "Subway, McDonald's, mall jobs" — and crashing with friends.

"My dad had the house open to me," she said. "But I didn't want to live there because we were always fighting."

As a high school dropout, Long's chances of finding a better life were slim — dropouts are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as recent high school graduates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dropouts are more than twice as likely to receive some sort of government welfare benefit as graduates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And they are far likelier than graduates to end up in jail. Almost 70 percent of state prison inmates did not finish high school, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The economic impact of dropping out is "tremendously bad," said Paul Harrington, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. "By dropping out of school, you're dropping out of mainstream life."

Harrington said if dropouts get a job, their earnings will be lower — about $10,000 annually, according to the Employment Policy Foundation. By dropping out, Harrington said, "you start at the bottom and you stay there."

This winter, Long was smoking a cigarette across the street from Champaign's Centennial High School—her former school—when a friend told her about a program where she could earn a General Education Development (GED) certificate.

Five weeks after enrolling in Lincoln's Challenge Academy (LCA) in Rantoul, Long had already filled out an application to Parkland Community College, where she plans to study dental hygiene. Her relationship with her father has improved, and she said he is now proud of her.

LCA is one of 29 academies in 25 states administered by the National Guard and is designed to give 16- to 18-year-old dropouts a chance to avoid becoming part of the litany of woeful statistics that describe their future.

"What these kids need is someone to give them a boot in the butt once in a while and head them down the right path," said Joe Padilla, chief of the National Guard Office of Athletics and Youth, who oversees the Challenge programs.

But LCA is not a boot camp for juvenile delinquents, said Richard Steigmann, the program's spokesman.

"It's a high school with a military influence," he said.

Every February and July a new class of cadets move into the barracks of the former air force base where they spend the next 22 weeks. The cadets sleep three to a room with no door. For amenities they are allowed three personal photos in their lockers. They rise at dawn for calisthenics. Lights out comes at nine.

Although the cadets don't receive combat training, they do answer to a cadre of drill instructors. Verbal harangues are common. Cadets who disrupt classes are made to do calisthenics or stand in the hall, "nose and toes on the wall."

For dropouts like Long, LCA provides not just a chance to earn a GED, but also a highly structured environment in which to learn some of the skills they will need to function in the world: job skills, physical fitness, leadership and teamwork, health, and skills such as budget management.

"Some of these kids are very smart, but weren't serviced in a traditional school environment," said Marilyn Brengle, of the University of Illinois Extension Program in Champaign County. "Lincoln's Challenge gives kids the opportunity to achieve competency or mastery—the chance to feel like, 'I've improved.'"

One of the program's key components is volunteer work. It's important to recognize that the students can contribute to society, said Lisa Comstock, community resource director at Thomasboro Grade School in Thomasboro, Ill. "They have amazing skills to offer," she said.

For all its success, LCA is not a panacea for the dropout problem. In ten years the academy graduated 7,500 students. Yet last year alone, the Illinois State Board of Education reported more than 36,000 dropouts—a figure Harrington says is an underestimate.

Though the program can quantify its short-term successes, little is known about how its graduates — the oldest are now approaching 30 — have fared. The program was not set up to track graduates, Padilla said, but it is launching such a study, which will take 18 months to complete.

LCA attempts to place all graduates in either a job, a structured volunteer position, further education, or the military. But, according to the National Guard's annual report, only 60 percent of LCA's 2002 graduates were successfully placed upon graduation, below the national average of 70 percent. By the end of the year, LCA had lost contact with 60 percent of its graduates. The national average for all Challenge programs was 22 percent.

John Linderman, supervisor of LCA's graduate affairs, attributes the low placement rates in part to bookkeeping, saying that many of the final reports did not arrive until after the cadets' cases were closed. Linderman also cited the failure of cadets and volunteer mentors to follow through with paperwork. He estimated that the actual placement rate is higher. He said the case managers' workloads might also contribute to the problem. In 2002, two of LCA's case managers were called up to active duty in Iraq, leaving eight to work with almost 800 cadets a year.

Since 1993, LCA has maintained an 80 percent graduation rate—almost as high as the average for Illinois public schools. Of LCA graduates, about 70 to 75 percent have earned a GED certificate, according to Steigmann.

While these statistics may seem unremarkable, LCA students are some of the most difficult to teach.

"These are kids that the high schools have already failed," said Cyprus Hughes, an admissions advisor at Parkland College.

In addition, the classes are large—33 students per teacher, almost twice the average ratio for Illinois public schools, and well above the 12 students per teacher ratio recommended for at-risk kids, says LCA education director Rich Norris. Norris attributes the program's success in part to the dedication of its teachers and to discipline—there's a drill instructor outside every classroom to deal with disruptive students.

Many who praise the program cite the academy's effect on students' self-confidence and maturity.

"In a relatively short time they seem to take on an adult air," said Mary Vidoni, a counselor at Champaign's Central High School.

Stacey Gross, an art teacher at Centennial who serves as Jessica Long's mentor, said she has already witnessed a transformation.

"(She has changed) mostly in self-confidence," Gross said. "She's never really had any attention at the academic level. She's never had anyone tell her she can do it."

Long now proudly wears a gold star on her uniform, recognition for the perfect 800 she scored on the reading section of the GED. Marveling at her success, she said, "I never knew I was smart."


Teachers offer to forgo retirement gifts  

By Jake Griffin, Daily Herald Staff Writer, April 15, 2004

Some teachers who are retiring from West Chicago's Community High School aren't done giving their students help with their education.

Instead of accepting retirement gifts from District 94, the teachers have asked the school board to allow them to donate the cost of those gifts to a scholarship fund for the school's students.

Board members said they liked the idea, but they did raise a concern about limiting where the money can be donated.

"I think it's a great idea, but ... if it's a donation back to the district, whether it be a scholarship or something directly related to District 94, I'd be in favor," said Karen Stott. "But outside organizations - I'd have some concerns, just because I want something that everybody in the district would approve of."

The board asked the district's staff to look into the proposal at a recent meeting, but only if the donations could be tied back to the students or school.

Mary Rash is retiring from teaching social studies at the school after 34 years. She thought of the donation when looking through a catalog of potential retirement gifts - such as gold watches, clocks and crystal - available to her.

"I just thought it was a way to give back to the students for all my good years," she said. "I've spent 34 years here, and it's a way to reinvest in their future."

Superintendent Lee Rieck said the donation idea also could apply to service anniversary gifts teachers receive starting at five years of seniority.

Rieck said the cost for the gifts ranges from $50 for five years of service to $275 for retirement gifts. The district budgets about $4,500 annually for service and retirement gifts for its 240-member staff.

"I think it's a very positive statement," he said of the proposal. "The teaching profession generally is one that gives back. When teachers have the opportunity they continue to give; many times it happens beyond retirement."

The cash-conscious board also floated the idea of cutting the gifts altogether to help shore up the budget.

Stott said the issue should be explored, but not at the risk of cutting out any type of recognition for the teachers' services.

"Maybe gifts aren't the way to recognize the teachers," she said. "But I don't have an alternate suggestion. Maybe we need to look at (more) years of service for recognition."

Rash said she'd talked with some other retiring teachers who also expressed an interest in the donation plan.

"With the cost of college these days, kids need the money," she said.

The board is expected to decide on a policy in May, Rieck said.





California schools face funding crisis  

By Beth Fouhy, Associated Press Writer, 4/9/2004

SAN FRANCISCO -- California public schools once ranked among the best-funded in the country, but a growing number of districts in the nation's largest public school system now say they're in full-blown crisis mode.

Seven warned the state they can't pay their bills this year, and 55 others say they may fall short of cash in the next three years. In one extreme example, the West Contra Costa Unified School District eliminated all sports, closed its libraries and laid off more than 200 employees last month.

"We are getting a call or an e-mail a day from districts asking for management assistance," said Tom Henry, whose Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team offers state management help to struggling schools.

The problem, many say, is a political environment that pays lip service to the importance of education but doesn't deliver the resources needed for even basic services.

"There's never been a time that I've been more concerned, more worried, and more fearful of the impact of budget cuts," said Brett McFadden of the Association of California School Administrators. "We have a situation in California where there's a huge disconnect between what the electorate wants and what the electorate is willing to pay for, and Republicans and Democrats alike need to admit it."

States nationwide face daunting school funding challenges, but the situation is particularly severe in California, which educates one of every eight students in the country.

Educators point to a confluence of economic and political constraints at the federal and state level that have forced California schools to slash programs, lay off staff and increase class size.

The problems include a state budget deficit projected to reach $14 billion next year, declining student enrollment in some places and explosive growth in others, spiraling health care and workers' compensation costs, and intractable state and federal spending mandates.

California's public schools were among the nation's best funded before voters in 1978 approved Proposition 13, slashing the property taxes that provided key revenues. Today, California ranks about near the bottom in average per pupil spending.

A voter backlash led to Proposition 98 in 1988, which guaranteed minimum funds for K-12 schools. But California's school spending has declined in recent years to about $6,500 per pupil per year, while states like New York and New Jersey spend close to $11,000.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned on a promise to protect public education. He negotiated a deal in December to delay $2 billion in payments to public schools in exchange for no further cuts, and has proposed freeing $2 billion in mandated programs so that schools can spend it as they see fit.

"He definitely followed through on the promises he made in the campaign, and the proof is in his budget," said state finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.

But escalating costs are forcing drastic choices.

Vallejo, a San Francisco Bay-area suburb that has lost students because of soaring housing costs, applied for an emergency $20 million state loan after cutting personnel, eliminating elementary music programs and raising class size in some elementary grades from 20 to 30 students. But by accepting the bailout, the district will have to surrender its management to a state administrator until the loan is repaid.

Small towns aren't immune -- the rural district of Corning in northern California has cut teachers and raised some class sizes to 38 students -- and still may not pay this year's bills.

"This has been the most contentious, awful year I have spent as a school administrator," said Corning superintendent Richard Jukes. "We have been focused on money issues, not learning, and that's not where we want to be."

Solutions remain elusive and controversial. Voters approved a $12.3 billion school construction bond in March, but the state's largest teachers union and director Rob Reiner dropped plans Thursday for an initiative to raise property taxes to pay for education and preschool programs.

The decision came after anti-tax groups claimed the measure could have raised residential property taxes, despite assurances from supporters that it would only affect commercial property.

Ultimately, Schwarzenegger and the legislature should consider tax increases, many educators say.

"Arnold was going to come in and make it all right -- you say what you say to get yourself elected," said Bob Bronzan, deputy superintendent of the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. "Now, do something about it."


Houston Schools Ease Rules on High School Promotion  

By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO, New York Times, April 9, 2004

After years of toughening standards for the promotion of ninth graders, the Houston Independent School District reversed course on Thursday, saying high school students who failed core subjects could now go on to the next grade, provided they had sufficient credits from other courses.

In a unanimous vote, the board gave preliminary approval to a proposal from the Houston schools superintendent, Kaye Stripling, to restore the district's former policy of promoting students based on the number of credits they had accumulated. Ms. Stripling said that holding children back in the ninth grade, which the district had once defended as a rejection of "social promotion," served only to raise dropout rates.

"It doesn't make sense to keep a child back until he is 17 or 18 years old because he passed all his subjects except one," Dr. Stripling said in a news release. "A student sitting in the ninth grade at age 17 is a kid who is going to say, `Forget this; I'm dropping out.' And Houston can't afford to lose its children that way."

School districts around the country are grappling with the issue of social promotion. In New York City, for example, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to hold back third graders who have not mastered basic skills. But in Chicago, the school board recently eased promotion rules as studies showed that its attempts to curtail social promotion had led to greater dropout rates and few educational benefits.

The about-face in Houston comes after a turbulent year for its schools. Last spring, the schools, which had been held up as a showcase for George W. Bush's educational accomplishments when he was the governor of Texas, were found to have vastly underreported dropout rates. While the schools had reported a 1.5 percent dropout rate to state officials, a state audit of 16 Houston schools found that nearly 54 percent of the 5,500 students who had left those schools should have been counted as dropouts, but had not been.

More recently, a Houston television station, KHOU, reported on the growing tendency since the mid-1990's for high schools to hold children back in the 9th grade, in some cases by not giving weaker students the courses they would need for promotion to 10th grade. In some instances, students were held back several times in the 9th grade, and then were suddenly promoted to the 12th grade.

To graduate, they still had to take the state test given to 10th graders, but their scores did not affect schools' ratings, on which bonuses for school employees were based.

While the Houston schools managed to avoid being downgraded after the dropout revelations, the state did require a monitor to oversee their recordkeeping. Additionally, Texas abandoned the 10th-grade assessment in favor of an 11th-grade exam required for graduation, reducing the pressure to show high scores in the 10th grade.

After the decision on Thursday, some education advocates welcomed the abandonment of a practice they had long criticized. But the shift also created bitterness, particularly among students who felt their lives had been short-circuited by the previous practice. School officials had maintained that holding children back in the ninth grade was meant to improve learning.

"Our first responsibility is to educate children," Terry Abbott, the spokesman for the Houston schools, wrote to KHOU last November. "Social promotion is harmful to students and is being abolished in Texas" and elsewhere, he wrote.

Under the policy approved Thursday, students in the Houston Independent School District must still pass the core subjects — including algebra, geometry, biology and English — but may do so at any time before graduation.

George Scott, an online education columnist for, who analyzes test scores in Houston, said that he agreed with the change, but did not trust the motives of school officials. "On the one hand, H.I.S.D. gamed the system to keep kids from taking the test," Mr. Scott said. "On the other hand, they have a dropout problem, and this is another way to game the system."

Luis Vega, a 20-year-old who was held back for three years as a ninth grader at Austin High School, said he was shocked by the district's turnaround. At Austin, he said, he did poorly in a basic math course, but had been given teachers who were foreign-born, and whom he had trouble understanding.

"They should have put me with teachers who had more experience with students who were slow learners," he said. "Instead they threw us away like trash. You just learn by yourself in any way you can."

Mr. Vega now attends a charter school run by the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, and is on track to graduate from high school this June, said Gilbert Moreno, the organization's director.


Nebraska shuns state tests; Schools get leeway to judge progress  

Tracy Dell'angela, Chicago Tribune/The Kansas City Star

LA VISTA, Neb. - (KRT) - 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 the nation as children take their states' standardized achievement tests.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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."


Kids' drug of choice ... in your medicine cabinet  

Senta Scarborough and Justin Juozapavicius, The Arizona Republic, Apr. 13, 2004

The drug of choice for some Valley schoolchildren is increasingly becoming whatever they can find in their parents' medicine cabinets or buy over the counter.

For the third time in a month, students were hospitalized Monday after taking a household medication, in this case a vitamin supplement called niacin used to combat high cholesterol. The three 12-year-old girls from Power Middle School, an alternative school for children with behavioral problems, were treated at Banner Baywood Heart Hospital in Mesa and released.

Linda Rottman, Mesa Public Schools assistant superintendent, said students are making poor choices by getting high.

"It seems recently to be more and more over-the-counter and prescribed drugs. We are dealing with something they can get from their dad's medicine cabinet," Rottman said. "You hope that something good will come of this, and you hope children and parents will recognize the dangers."

Last month, paramedics were called to a Scottsdale high school after a student reported feeling ill from taking cold medicine the night before, spokesman Tom Herrmann said.

Two Desert Ridge High School sophomores, ages 14 and 15, were hospitalized March 25 after both took over-the-counter cold pills, DexAlone, and one also took an antidepressant, Elavil, while they were at the Gilbert district school.

The cold pills were shoplifted from a drugstore and the antidepressant was stolen from a terminally ill friend of the girl's family, according to police reports.

Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Brad Barrett told parents in a letter dated April 6 that there had also been a second such incident in his district "in the past couple of weeks." He did not provide details of that incident.

In the letter Barrett wrote, "Another disturbing fact is that in recent years the nature of drug abuse has changed. In addition to illegal drugs, we are now dealing with the abuse of common over-the-counter cold medicines and muscle relaxants. These are more difficult to detect."

Marian Hermie, superintendent of the Fountain Hills Unified School District, said her district has not experienced any recent problems with abuse of household drugs, but she is familiar with the trend of students grabbing whatever is available.

"You can't keep spray starch in some people's homes," she said. "Things they use today wouldn't have crossed my mind."

Lacey Rose Cox, administrator of Gilbert police counseling programs, says the increase seems to be due to the general upswing in the use of drugs, fueled partly by drug advertisements in magazines and on television.

"In this society, that is an increasing trend, and I think the kids are following that," Cox said. "Prescription drugs are much more prevalent and easier for them to get their hands on. A lot of those people are being helped, but it opens you up to a lot of abuse."

Cox said staff in her program created a new brochure on household drug dangers that is being distributed now. The department, Gilbert schools and community groups are organizing a drug-awareness forum for next month because of the spring incidents, including the suspected drug-related deaths of two students who took illegal drugs, and the school suspension March 29 of students at two high schools who were involved in buying, selling and using the muscle relaxant soma that they had obtained in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

At Power Middle School, officials said one of the 12-year-olds who were taken to the hospital brought the pills from home and distributed them to other students.

Fire paramedics were called to the school at Power and University in northeast Mesa around 9:30 a.m. to evaluate seven seventh- and eighth-grade students, ages 12 to 14, believed to have taken between half a pill and 15 pills. The school called police after three students complained of dizziness, nausea and rashes.

Mesa police Sgt. Michael Thompson, who oversees 12 school resource officers in Mesa, said he has seen an increase in "severe" incidents. He believes teachers and school officials are more educated about the drugs and over-the-counter products students take and are more likely to call authorities when they see the symptoms.

Although police will investigate the Monday incident, it's unlikely any of the students will face legal charges because they were using over-the-counter medicine.

"We don't have a lot of teeth for us to come back on," Thompson said. "That is why it is frustrating, and more and more they are doing it because they are not breaking the law."


Perry orders special session to pay for Texas' schools  

By CLAY ROBISON, Houston Chronicle, April 13, 2004


To reduce local school property taxes by:

• A higher cigarette tax.

• Video lottery terminals at racetracks and on Indian reservations.

• A $5 state tax on admissions to adult entertainment clubs.

• Closing a loophole in the state franchise tax.

AUSTIN -- Gov. Rick Perry today called the Legislature into a much-anticipated special session on April 20 to tackle school finance and related educational issues.

"The time for pondering is over. It's time for action," said Perry, who is seeking cuts in local school property taxes and a replacement for the so-called "Robin Hood" school funding law that forces wealthy districts to share tax revenue with poor schools.

The governor repeatedly had said he would schedule a special session after he had reached consensus with legislative leaders on a new plan for funding the public schools. So far, no agreement is apparent.

But Perry predicted the pressure of a special session -- and the possibility of more sessions if necessary -- would force a solution once lawmakers return to Austin.

He said there already is "great consensus" that the current funding scheme is "dated and unworkable."

"There is nothing like the certainty of a session to bring greater work on the details," he added.

Each special session is limited to 30 days, which means this one will have to end on May 19 if work is not completed sooner. But there is no limit to the number of special sessions a governor can call, and Perry indicated he would call subsequent sessions if the first one ends in failure.

"We will roll up our sleeves. We will burn the midnight oil, and we won't leave until our work is done," he said.

Last week, Perry unveiled the final parts of his own plan for replacing the current school finance law and making other changes in public education.

The governor has proposed cuts in local school property taxes to be replaced by new state revenue sources, including a higher cigarette tax, video lottery terminals at racetracks and on Indian reservations, a new $5 state tax on admissions to adult entertainment clubs and closing a loophole in the state franchise tax.

He also has proposed a new statewide tax on business property that has drawn widespread opposition from the business community, which fears being taxed at a higher rate than residential property. The statewide business tax and the expanded gambling would have tough hills to climb in the Legislature because each would require constitutional amendments approved by two-thirds of the House and the Senate. They also would have to be approved by Texas voters.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and much of the Senate, meanwhile, are working on a competing plan, which would trade lower school property taxes for a broad-based business activity tax.

"I don't think there is any consensus at this time," said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, which generally supports the governor on major issues but opposes the statewide business property tax.

But Hammond said it made sense for Perry to call lawmakers into session.

"He has a real problem that needs to be dealt with," he said.

Perry said his plan would replace the so-called "Robin Hood" school finance law, which forces property wealthy school districts to share tax revenue with poor schools.

He said it would increase the state's share of funding the public schools from the present 38 percent to about 60 percent and promote equity. He also would set new limits on increases in property tax revenue for cities and counties, as well as school districts. That latter proposal has drawn strong opposition from local governments.


Vouchers spur lasting achievement gains in MPS schools, study says 

But critics seek more information, argue that other research doesn't match

By SARAH CARR, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 12, 2004

Milwaukee's voucher program prompted sustainable achievement gains for the city's public elementary schools, according to a new study by a Harvard economist.

Researcher Caroline Hoxby followed up on a study of three years ago, in which she concluded that the private school choice program pushed the public schools to improve.

In the new study, she adds test score data from two additional years - the 2000-'01 and 2001-'02 school years - and finds that the gains were sustained, although they did not accelerate. The study was published in the Swedish Economic Policy Review.

"Adding the new years of data allows us to see that the good results have lasted," Hoxby said. "A lot of people thought that this was a blip that was going to go away."

But Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, argued that Hoxby's findings show just that, a blip of one or two years when test scores in some MPS schools improved more sharply than those in a control group of Wisconsin schools outside Milwaukee.

Carnoy added that if Hoxby removed the 1997-'98 school year, with its good test scores, from her analysis, "she would be cooked."

"If one believes her conclusions already, this will fuel their belief," Carnoy said. "But for someone who is a skeptic, this isn't going to change their mind."

Some Milwaukee school administrators have said that the growth of the voucher program - particularly after the 1998 court decision that allowed private schools with a religious affiliation to participate - has prompted them to compete more aggressively for the city's students.

Advocates for vouchers tout this as a key selling point, arguing that vouchers can improve the educational experience of the thousands of children who choose to stay with Milwaukee Public Schools.

Hoxby's argument is that vouchers can spur improvements in public schools by threatening to steal away students and the money that comes with them.

In this study and the earlier one, Hoxby did a complicated review of what she describes as "productivity" at several dozen Wisconsin schools. She defined productivity as the ratio of standardized test scores in various subjects to per-student spending.

Hoxby calculated the productivity from 1996 through 2002 of a set of MPS schools that she predicts would be most affected by choice because they have a large number of students eligible for vouchers; of a set that would be less affected because fewer students are eligible for vouchers; and of a set of Wisconsin schools outside Milwaukee that are in urban areas and have relatively high numbers of poor and black students. The last group is the control set because students outside Milwaukee cannot receive vouchers.

She found that test scores at the most affected schools shot up more than those in the two other groups between 1997 and 1999, when MPS would feel the most competitive pressure because of the state Supreme Court decision allowing the expansion of vouchers.

In all three groups, test scores were relatively level between 1999 and 2002 in most subjects.

"The gains are really remarkable by any American standards," Hoxby said. "Vouchers are not supposed to be a miracle silver bullet but should stimulate schools to make changes that they've needed to make for a long time."

But Emily Van Dunk, research director at the Public Policy Forum, a local research organization, said it is "very unclear when the test score increases she is talking about really happened."

Van Dunk said her own research has not uncovered comparable test score increases. She recently co-wrote a book that concluded that student performance is lower in public schools located near voucher schools, and that MPS schools are insulated from financial harm when they lose students to private ones in the choice program.

"In many ways, her research is creative and sophisticated, but it doesn't reconcile with the real world," she added.

Carnoy argued that not enough is known about the control group outside Milwaukee to ensure that it makes for a good comparison.

"Her position is pretty strong based on her data," he said.

But Hoxby said: "It looks like the achievement is significantly higher and shows no signs of decreasing at all."


School district may try farming out bus service  

By Emily Richmond, Las Vegas Sun, April 12, 2004 

Clark County School District officials are determining whether contracting out transportation services for the district's magnet school programs could save money.

"In order to assure the public we're getting the biggest bang for their buck we occasionally have to do a comparison of our costs versus what the outside guys say they could do the job for," Walt Rulffes, deputy superintendent of operations for the district, said. "We've looked into outsourcing food services and custodial services, but until now we haven't done a serious examination of transportation."

It makes sense to use the magnet schools program as a potential pilot study, Rulffes said.

"We wouldn't want to experiment on a district-wide basis and risk disrupting services for our students," Rulffes said. "The magnet school program is small enough that we could step back in quickly if things weren't working out."

The magnet school bus routes have been a source of frustration for parents and students for years, said D.J. Stutz, president of the Nevada PTA. In many instances students must ride one bus from their local school to a transfer site and then board a second bus for the ride to the magnet school.

"You have kids who have to be up and ready two hours earlier than normal and spend more than an hour each way on buses," Stutz said. "That's a long time for kids, especially when you're talking about first, second or third graders."

Stutz said she would want more information as to how drivers hired by the contracting companies would be trained and screened.

"If contracting out transportation would cut down on the amount of time a kid has to sit on the bus, that would certainly make the plan more appealing," Stutz said. "We want to make sure parents and students are getting the best possible services."

Several private bus companies have contacted the district and expressed interest in provide services, Rulffes said. The discussions have not reached the stage where formal proposals or cost estimates have been submitted, Rulffes said.

Valerie Flores, general manager for Illinois-based Laidlaw Transit's operations in the Las Vegas Valley, said she was unaware that the school district was considering opening up transportation to outside bids. Laidlaw is contracted with the Regional Transportation Commission to provide bus services to riders with disabilities.

"We would certainly like to find out more about what the (school district) is considering," Flores said. "Depending on whether the circumstances were right for us in terms of cost benefits, we would probably be very interested."

It's unlikely that outsourcing a small portion of the district's transportation services would result in job cuts for current drivers, Rulffes said.

"We're always looking for more drivers and it seems like we're adding new routes all the time," Rulffes said, noting the district will open 14 new schools in August. "I don't think any employee should feel that contracting would threaten their job security."

The district's total transportation budget for the 2003-04 academic year is $68 million, and includes 1,180 buses operating on hundreds of routes. Transportation for the magnet school sites -- which draw students from throughout the district for special programs in the arts, sciences and humanities -- require 140 buses.

Joe Furtado, executive director of the Education Support Employees Association, said the union representing the district's bus drivers would oppose contracting out any transportation services.

"That work is for our people, or for future drivers who will become our people," Furtado said last Thursday.

Furtado said he had additional questions, including how the district planned to conduct background checks on contracted drivers.

An attempt by district officials last year to put students from three high schools on Citizen Area Transport buses was dismantled after angry parents voiced safety concerns. Furtado said he expected the district's latest proposal will ultimately be derailed for the same reason.

"(Clark County School District) employees are the ones who will best protect the students," Furtado said. "And our folks can do it (the job) at the best price for the taxpayer."


A warning on school achievement scores

By Jay Mathews, Washington Post, 4/14/2004

WASHINGTON -- A new study of 270,000 public school students warns that the No Child Left Behind law may prompt some parents to send children from low-performing schools to others that appear to foster high achievement but do a poor job of raising individual student scores.

The study endorses the view of many educators, including some supporters of No Child Left Behind, that school achievement ratings will work better once all school systems can keep track of every student's improvement each year, rather than just compare one year's average test scores with the scores of other students from the previous year.

"While it is clear that our educational system should leave no child behind, it is also clear that the mission of our educational system needs to go beyond this goal," said the study by the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association, based in Lake Oswego, Ore.

Officials at the US Education Department said they will have to study the full report, available at, before they could judge its worth.

The association used data from about 1 million US students who took standardized tests at the beginning and at the end of each school year to determine how much each student improved. Using that information, the association produced a growth index that measures how much each student learned in a year compared with the average student.

The analysis shows that many schools with average test scores high enough to meet the annual milestones set by the No Child Left Behind law were below average in individual student academic growth, said Allan Olson, the association's executive director and one of the study's authors. More than 20 percent of the schools with scores high enough to meet the federal targets "fall into the bottom quarter of schools in terms of the amount of growth they cause in their students," the study said.

The federal targets are measured as average passing rates on a test, and compare one group of students with a different group from the previous year. The study authors said this disguises and obscures how much each individual student learns during each year.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that accept federal antipoverty education funds must demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" toward ensuring that all students will be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Schools that consistently fail to do so must provide transportation for students who wish to transfer to higher-performing schools.



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