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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – May 28 – June 4, 2004

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STATE
House OKs education bill
/ Pantagraph
State senate nixes school building plan extension / Peoria Journal-Star
Deal ends school fight / Chicago Tribune
Governor doesn't get his way on schools / Daily Herald
Schools fear tax cap may gut their finances / Chicago Tribune
Gov's education plan in limbo / Rockford Register Star
No budget agreement in sight, Illinois Legislature goes into overtime / Daily Gate
Illinois Senate rejects popular school construction program / AP
Local districts hope state brings back building funds / Beacon News
Businesses, schools wary of tax cap / Libertyville Review
School construction grants work well the way they are / Lincoln Daily News
Four–school convergence group names Committee of 10 / Hawk Eye (IA)
Cell phones a discipline issue in schools / Northwest Herald
Educational reform for intellectual lightweights / Peoria Journal Star

NATIONAL
We are the parents. Is anyone listening? / Christian Science Monitor
Calif. schools sued for suspending teen / Boston Globe
School counselors stretched thin / CNN.com
Taking Candy From Pupils? School Vending Bill Says Yes / New York Times
Dividing the Sexes, for the Tough Years / New York Times
Valedictorians reverse gender gap / The Oregonian
Kids' obesity may be worse than thought / Boston Globe

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STATE

House OKs education bill

Scott Miller, Pantagraph

SPRINGFIELD -- The radically retooled version of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's education overhaul breezed through the House on Monday, but some lawmakers said the measure is little more than "window dressing."

Strong supporters say the reform holds the governor accountable for the happenings in Illinois classrooms. But, it is a far cry from his original plan to replace the State Board of Education with a department directly under his control.

"This is a good day for parents. Parents will now be able to have a tangible body to hold accountable and not a far away entity," said state Rep. Calvin Giles, D-Chicago, who sponsored the legislation.

The proposal, which was poised to win Senate approval, does not address the state's funding imbalance between rich and poor school districts, skeptics argue, claiming the measure is only an attempt to save political face.

"This is ho-hum. What was billed as a major reform, (House Speaker Michael) Madigan said it the other day, is 'window dressing,'" said state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth. "This is about appointments, just rearranging the chairs on the deck. That's all it is."

Under the new configuration, the governor will be able to appoint seven members of the nine-member State Board of Education immediately and two more later.

Subsequent governors could appoint five new members during their first year in office and four later.

Also, local school districts could choose to use state resources for purchasing and building programs, and the state board would be required to seek legislative approval for many of its regulations.

Blagojevich defended and praised the compromise Friday, saying the state board now will answer "to the parents and to the children."

He left little doubt that he wanted the new board to fire state Superintendent Robert Schiller, who was hired before Blagojevich took office in 2002. Under this plan, the board would have complete discretion on hiring a new superintendent.

The House approved the legislation with 116 votes. Only state Rep. Art Tenhouse, R-Liberty, cast a dissenting vote, saying the plan is better than the original but still gives the governor too much power.

"I just can't support Gov. Blagojevich taking over what should be an independent body," he said.

The legislation is Senate Bill 3000.

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State senate nixes school building plan extension

House gives governor more control of Board of Education

Adriana Colindres, Copley Press

SPRINGFIELD - The Illinois Senate rejected a plan Monday to extend the school construction grant program, and the House agreed to give the governor more control over the state's education agency.

The Senate measure would have authorized state government to issue an extra $2.2 billion in general obligation funds so the popular school construction program could keep going for another four years.

Under Senate Bill 3001, $550 million would be available each year. At present, the program has run out of funding for schools that want to construct new buildings or additions.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Pat Welch, D-Peru, said its passage would ensure that children have adequate facilities more suitable for learning.

But Senate Republicans generally opposed the legislation, which would give the program's oversight duties to the Capital Development Board, an agency that reports to the governor. In the past, the State Board of Education has been in charge of the school construction program.

Sen. Dan Cronin, R-Elmhurst, said the bill would give Gov. Rod Blagojevich an unprecedented level of influence over school construction and funding. In addition, he said, the bill

does not identify a revenue source to cover the $2.2 billion cost.

Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson of Greenville called it "an effort to politicize the process."

The bill needed 36 yes votes to advance. It attracted just 31 on a mostly partisan roll call, with Democrats voting yes and Republicans voting no or "present."

Welch said afterward that he was not surprised by the outcome.

He accused Republicans of being "so obsessed with the issue of no more borrowing that they're willing to sacrifice the children of the state of Illinois."

South Pekin

A list of about two dozen school districts that expect to receive money under a construction grant program includes districts in Rochester and South Pekin.

After the failed Senate vote on Monday, Rochester Superintendent Tom Bertrand said he still hopes that by the time lawmakers go home for the summer, they will approve extension of the construction grant program.

"We continue to grow. The need is great," Bertrand said of his Sangamon County district, which serves about 1,950 students.

The Rochester district already has begun a $1.6 million, eight-classroom addition to the elementary school. District officials also want to build a new junior high school and make an addition at the high school. In all, the district has an $18.5 million building program, with the local share totaling about $8.5 million, Bertrand said.

South Pekin Grade School District 137 has decided not to proceed with plans to build additional classrooms, Superintendent Daniel Hylbert said. Those plans were developed a few years ago.

State Board of Education

Also Monday, the House of Representatives voted 116-1 for a compromise measure that would allow Blagojevich to replace seven members of the nine-member State Board of Education immediately.

That legislation, the amended version of Senate Bill 3000, is the result of an agreement among Blagojevich and all four legislative leaders.

The governor originally had wanted to revamp the state's education system by gutting the State Board of Education, which he derided as a "Soviet-style bureaucracy," and transferring most of its duties to a new Department of Education.

But critics questioned the constitutionality of such a move, and the weaker restructuring plan eventually emerged. It would permit future governors to appoint five members to the State Board of Education once they take office, and to appoint the remaining four members two years later.

The bill, which cleared a Senate committee Monday night and was poised for passage by the full Senate, also would give school districts the option of participating in the state's prescription-drug-buying plan and a pooled purchasing program. The governor believes the programs would help school districts save money.

Another part of the legislation would limit the length of a state school superintendent's job contract with the State Board of Education to a maximum of four years, so the superintendent's tenure generally would coincide with the governor's.

Late Monday night, the Senate Education committee approved an amended version of House Bill 929. That measure includes revisions to the state's teacher certification system. The House already approved a similar bill.

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Deal ends school fight

Compromise preserves state board, lets governor oust current members

Christi Parsons and Tracy Dell'Angela, Tribune staff reporters. Christi Parsons reported from Springfield and Tracy Dell'Angela from Chicago. Tribune staff reporter Ray Long in Springfield also contributed

SPRINGFIELD -- After months of vitriolic threats to dismantle the Illinois State Board of Education, Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Friday agreed to a deal with top lawmakers that would keep in place the bureaucracy he once termed "Soviet-style" but sweep out the current board members he doesn't like.

The compromise represents an anti-climactic end to the fierce struggle Blagojevich promised earlier this year, saying the board got in the way of effective education.

Though the governor declared victory in his quest to reform education oversight, he settled for a far more modest set of changes than he originally sought in unveiling a plan in January to gut the board and assume its duties within his administration.

In the end, the campaign launched by Blagojevich appeared to have been largely reduced to a battle of personalities. And the major concession the governor wrung from lawmakers was the power for him to replace most of the present board's members along with State Schools Supt. Robert Schiller as early as the summer.

That clearly will give Blagojevich the ability to put his people in charge of the nine-member panel. But it also will allow the board to remain somewhat independent. He will not be able to fire any board member at will, as he had once sought.

Blagojevich also gave up several cost-saving measures, which were a major reason he gave for pushing an overhaul. Originally, Blagojevich would have required local school districts to cede to him control over construction of their schools as well as the purchase of their supplies, prescription drugs and health insurance. That, he had said, would save the districts $1 billion over four years.

Now school participation in those pools will be voluntary rather than mandatory. Though the administration estimates local districts will still save money if they take part, many school officials questioned whether it would free up significant sums needed to hire more teachers or make class sizes smaller or schools safer.

"In truth, I don't believe these policy and political issues will have any impact on classrooms--be it in Chatham or Chicago," Schiller said. "We [at the board] don't make the decisions that matter to parents. All those decisions are made at the local level."

Blagojevich announced the deal at a Springfield news conference with top legislative leaders of both parties. He maintained the compromise would make the board more accountable and better for schoolchildren. But even as he spoke of the agreement's merits, he sought to downplay expectations.

"I'm certainly not promising miracles overnight--or miracles at all," Blagojevich said. "I'm not in a position to obviously do that."

Governor dismisses polls

At the news conference, Blagojevich also declared the proposed Rosemont casino virtually dead. And the governor, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on polling since taking office, responded to his dwindling approval ratings reflected in a Tribune poll by dismissing the importance of polls in general.

The governor's job review comes as he heads into heated negotiations to resolve the state budget, a task he approached last year as a popular governor doing business with a mandate from the people.

Lawmakers have already regarded him with more skepticism this year. As a result, the work that remains before them is so monumental that on Friday, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) dismissed his chamber with a sober directive that they come back ready to work past the Monday deadline and throughout the week following.

The education deal resolves at least one key agenda item, which Blagojevich launched months ago by declaring all-out war on the state board.

Now that the governor and leaders have agreed on something far more modest, some critics question whether the furious rhetoric that preceded the agreement was really necessary.

The fuss over the structure of the board was a "major distraction" from more important issues facing education, said Ron Gidwitz, former chairman and a current member of the state board.

"It would not be the way I would manage my business," said Gidwitz, who said he expects to be one of the members who leaves the board this summer. "I don't know that that kind of confrontation is productive. It's a distraction and it causes people to focus on the wrong things. All of a sudden we're focusing on the administration of an agency when the real issue is, `Are the children learning?'"

Schools chief lauds deal

Despite his reservations, Schiller still praised the compromise as one that could restore stability and authority to an agency that has been all but paralyzed by the upheaval after the governor's takeover threat.

"This depends totally on the quality of the people chosen to be on the board ... and their ability to rise above the short-term political concerns to deal with the long-term policy issues of school reform," Schiller said. "In retrospect, this could have been accomplished six months ago ... much more quickly and far less painfully."

Increasingly, the state board's role has shifted to tracking and enforcing state and federal programs, collecting and analyzing huge amounts of data. Because that role is mandated by law, board cutbacks have disproportionately hurt services such as curriculum development and teacher training.

In the last two years, the state cut $49 million and 300 jobs from the state board's budget. Of the 480 jobs left, some 235 are paid by the federal government to enforce mandates created by the No Child Left Behind Act and other federal programs.

"I'm not sure the governor or the legislature truly understands the role of the State Board of Education," said Howard Crouse, an Indian Prairie District 204 administrator who worked on a committee that advised the governor on reforms that worked in other states.

"If the legislature wants the state board to focus on being a service agency, then they can't continue to pass more laws that require more regulation. Changing the rhetoric into action will be a challenge."

Some educators said they will believe the deal will improve matters when they see it in action.

"This elevates the status of the state board and moves accountability to the governor," said Riverside District 96 Supt. David Bonnette. "Is that a good thing? I hope so. Time will tell."

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Governor doesn't get his way on schools

Eric Krol and Sara Hooker, Daily Herald

SPRINGFIELD - Back in January, Gov. Rod Blagojevich vilified the State Board of Education as a clunky "old Soviet-style bureaucracy" that, for the sake of schoolchildren, needed to be scrapped in favor of a new agency under his control.

"It's a burden to the taxpayers. It's a drain on local schools," the governor said in his State of the State speech. "It's an albatross to our principals and teachers. It's not helping our children."

On Friday, after lawmakers rejected his sweeping reform plan as an unconstitutional power grab, Blagojevich tried to put the best face on a compromise that fails to give him much of what he said was his top legislative priority this spring.

"I don't view it that way at all," said Blagojevich when asked about his legislative defeat. "I think this is all moving in the direction we intended it to go in. You can never expect to get everything you ask for."

Instead of getting an entirely new department of education under his control, Blagojevich will be able to appoint seven of the nine members of the State Board of Education on July 1. He would have been able to appoint five new members in January anyway.

And instead of requiring all school districts to join purchasing pools for health benefits, classroom construction and administrative tasks like bill-paying - affording Blagojevich greater control over doling out contracts - districts simply will have the option of joining such pools.

"What he proposed and what he got is like the difference between night and day," said Elmhurst state Sen. Dan Cronin, the top Republican on the Senate Education Committee. "But let me recognize the governor was willing to see the error of his ways."

The changes to the state's education bureaucracy are part of an agreement announced Friday by Blagojevich, all four legislative leaders and key lawmakers on education.

All told, the measure, which is expected to gain approval from the General Assembly by Monday night, won't have much impact on suburban schools.

"The schools are going to be operating very well, they're going to be struggling financially either way," said Donna Baiocchi, executive director of ED-RED, a suburban education and research group. "So will this change the success or failure rate of my schools? I don't believe so."

Likely to be fired if the legislation passes is state school Superintendent Robert Schiller, who has clashed bitterly with Blagojevich since January. Blagojevich all but said his new appointees would replace Schiller, and said he'd be looking for a Paul Vallas-type of education reformer. Vallas helped turn around the struggling Chicago Public Schools before losing to Blagojevich in the 2002 Democratic governor primary.

Schiller declined to talk about his possible dismissal but said the compromise measure only changes board members, not the structure of the state's education bureaucracy. Blagojevich argued the changes ensure greater accountability in the state's education system.

Blagojevich estimated his plan could save the state $1 billion over the next four years. Lawmakers said it's unclear whether any savings will be realized from the compromise plan, while the governor held out hope that the voluntary plan could generate $200 million to $400 million in savings.

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Schools fear tax cap may gut their finances

Diane Rado, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Ray Long contributed to this report

Property-tax relief in an election year may be good politics, but some educators worry that the assessment cap passed by Illinois legislators last week will take more money away from schools at a time when nearly three-quarters of the state's districts are running deficits.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich quickly pledged to sign the measure, which would limit increases in most residential assessments to 7 percent a year, beginning in Cook County and potentially spreading to other counties.

Proponents of the measure said that overall, schools will be able to collect as much tax revenue as they did last year.

But school administrators and advocates believe that analysis breaks down when you consider the effects on individual districts and particular school funds.

Property-tax collections are based on assessed value multiplied by tax rates and by a state multiplier for each district. Illinois schools depend on property taxes for most of their funding.

And in the tangled world of school finance, it is difficult to predict all the consequences of a broad change to the tax structure.

In some of the most dramatic cases, the assessment cap may prevent a district from collecting the revenue it needs, school officials said.

In other cases, it may force districts to raise tax rates, when rising real-estate values might have otherwise taken care of rising expenses. Other districts may face restrictions on borrowing because the ability to borrow is tied to property wealth.

Finally, with the legislation shifting more of the property-tax burden to businesses, school officials fear a rise in tax appeals that have cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.

Appeals costly

Riverside School District 96 lost more than $1 million last year because of tax appeals by businesses--a huge impact on a budget of a little more than $10 million, said Supt. David Bonnette.

His biggest concern about the assessment cap is that it will increase those appeals further. And companies, he said, usually win.

"I think that on the surface, it's difficult for anyone to vote against tax relief, but this is too broad," said Donna Baiocchi, executive director of Ed-Red, an advocacy group representing more than 100 districts in Cook, DuPage and Lake Counties. "It ignores the detrimental effects for our public schools."

About half of all Illinois districts, including those in Cook and suburban counties, are already living under tax caps. Those caps, initiated in the early to mid-1990s, limit increases in property taxes collected for schools to 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.

The new assessment-cap legislation has roots in Cook County, where the median increase in Chicago's residential assessments was 32 percent last year, according to the county assessor's office. Assessor James Houlihan championed the tax-relief proposals that ultimately became Senate Bill 2112, which would cap assessments for three years.

The assessor's office assured lawmakers that Cook school districts would collect no less money overall than the previous year under the cap.

That's correct if you're talking about all the money the districts collect to distribute across various accounts for school operations and other expenses, said Rob Grossi, Bloom Township school treasurer, who testified against the legislation in Springfield.

A complicated process

The problem comes in when you dig deeper into the complicated way revenues are generated and distributed for each account and how the assessment cap affects each account, Grossi said.

His review of one Cook district--Park Forest Elementary District 163--estimated that the district would collect $384,000 less in operating funds if the cap had been in place for the 2002 property assessments. The operating funds include accounts for educator salaries, operations, transportation and maintenance of school buildings.

School officials said the impact would depend on each district's financial circumstances. Chicago budget officials, for example, said the legislation would not hurt district finances.

A study of 25 Cook districts earlier this year by the non-partisan Civic Federation in Chicago concluded that 14 of the districts may lose some property-tax revenue in their main accounts for teacher salaries, but not a significant amount in any case.

Toni Waggoner, a finance official at the Illinois State Board of Education, said school districts not subject to the tax cap initiated in the 1990s have not grappled with this kind of limit before and may not be prepared for the impact.

Michelle Kucera, a spokeswoman for the assessor's office, said, "Each district has different rules regarding their funds, so you have to acknowledge that a small number of districts could face limits in their specific funds" as a result of the legislation.

She also said that Houlihan acknowledged that the assessment-cap legislation "is not a perfect solution; it's a first step toward overall change." Houlihan is a lead supporter of a new group formed to reform the way Illinois funds public schools, to reduce reliance on property taxes.

Governor approves

Last week, Blagojevich said he would sign the bill, because "for too long, property ... owners in Illinois in different parts of our state have been overburdened because of our failure from the state level to meet our responsibilities to fund education."

Bill Huley, president of the Northwest Tax Watch organization, said the bill isn't as good as it sounds for taxpayers.

He is concerned that a shift in the tax burden to businesses could hurt and even drive out companies that help fund school districts.

In addition, the bill doesn't address what Huley calls outrageous and uncontrolled spending by some school districts, such as for six-figure teacher and administrator salaries.

"The whole thing needs to be addressed from the spending side too," he said. "Nobody is talking about some of the spending that goes on."

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Gov's education plan in limbo

Senate Republicans now have to weigh in on the proposal, and they're not thrilled at giving Rod Blagojevich so much control.

Aaron Chambers, Rockford Register Star Springfield Bureau

SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich's education takeover plan was destined for quick and painless passage into law.

Yet it's stalled in the Legislature.

All four legislative leaders stood beside Blagojevich when the Chicago Democrat announced compromise legislation Friday to grant him power to pick seven people for the nine-member State Board of Education.

That would give the Chicago Democrat effective control of the board, which administers public schools in Illinois.

The House passed the bill Monday amid a flurry of activity, but the Senate adjourned without calling it for a vote. Sen. Miguel del Valle, D-Chicago, the bill's sponsor, said he feared that the issue would get caught in end-of-session partisan wrangling.

"I've been trying very hard to keep all our education stuff out of this political battle over the budget and other issues," he said.

The political dynamics changed entirely Tuesday, and that may not bode well for the governor's plan. If the Democrats who control the Senate had moved the bill before midnight Monday, they could have passed it without a single Republican vote.

Now Republicans are in the driver's seat. As of Tuesday, bills with an immediate effective date, such as the Blagojevich education plan, must be adopted with a three-fifths majority. That requires Republican votes.

Sen. Dan Cronin of Elmhurst, the Senate GOP's point man on this issue, said his GOP colleagues are cool to letting Blagojevich control a majority of appointments to the board when the Senate may not be able to consider those picks until November, when lawmakers return for veto session.

Under Illinois law, the governor's appointments are subject to the consent of the Senate. But his appointees serve on the board until the Senate weighs in.

"We're concerned that the governor could create havoc or that there may be mischief going on," Cronin said.

"We don't know that this governor can be trusted to make quality appointments that will serve, without the advice and consent of the Senate, for five or six months. They could do a lot of damage in that period of time."

Cronin said Republicans have always been uncomfortable with giving Blagojevich that power. "Now that we're in overtime (session), maybe we can do something about it."

Lawmakers are caught in a budget stalemate. The Senate and House released lawmakers from the Capitol on Tuesday but they could return here at any time to finalize the budget for the next fiscal year.

Cronin said he's talking to members of other caucuses about delaying the effective date of the governor's proposed appointment power until July 2005. Under that scenario, the governor could announce his appointments, and the Senate would screen them before the legislation is effective.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said the administration remained confident in the ability of Senate President Emil Jones Jr., D-Chicago, to push the legislation through his chamber.

"The governor stood with all four legislative leaders and members from all four caucuses to talk about the importance of the education reform legislation," she said Tuesday. "We're confident that those members will stay true to their word and help us get final approval on the package."

The compromise plan also would let schools combine buying power to save money on supplies and prescription drugs. Blagojevich wanted to require school districts to join purchasing pools. Under the compromise, the pools would be voluntary.

Blagojevich asked the Legislature in January to establish a Department of Education under his command, and shift the State Board of Education's responsibilities to the department. He settled for the compromise after House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said the original plan would violate the Illinois Constitution, which establishes the board.

Notwithstanding the stalled legislation, the governor would control the appointments of a majority on the board come January. The terms of two members will expire at that time, and three seats on the board are empty, and he could fill them at any time.

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No budget agreement in sight, Illinois Legislature goes into overtime

Christopher Wills/Associated Press Writer/Daily Gate City

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Finger-pointing among the top Democrats in state government pushed the Legislature into an overtime session, leaving a $2.3 billion budget deficit unresolved Monday.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones announced they were united in supporting a version of the budget that would increase education and welfare spending by more than $1 billion.

They accused House Speaker Michael Madigan of ignoring children and the needy by supporting smaller increases. The House adjourned about 11:30 p.m.

By failing to pass a budget by the end of May, Democrats have given new power to the Republican minorities in each legislative chamber. Under state law, the number of votes needed to pass budget bills increases after May 31 from a simple majority to three-fifths majority, meaning nothing can pass without Republican support.

That shift, many lawmakers warned, creates uncertainty that could hold up a budget agreement for weeks -- possibly even beyond the expiration of the current state budget on June 30.

"Happy Fourth of July," Sen. James DeLeo, D-Chicago, sarcastically told a colleague.

Blagojevich denied the budget impasse is an embarrassment for state government's Democratic leadership.

"An embarrassment to the Democratic Party would be to abandon our principles because we have a deadline to meet," the governor said at a Statehouse news conference Monday evening. Last month, he ordered state agencies to come up with contingency plans for providing services in case the budget expires without a replacement.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the latest Blagojevich-Jones proposal seemed to be based on questionable ideas, including a "vague" promise of 2.25 percent cuts to most agencies for a savings of $400 million.

"Obviously we'd like to get a budget adopted as quickly as possible, but whatever we do will be based on sound principles," Brown said.

Ego and political gamesmanship may play a big role in the stalemate, but at the heart of the matter are serious questions of who pays for government services and who benefits from them.

Will schools get more money? Will more poor families be added to state health care programs? Should businesses be asked, for the second year in a row, to pay higher taxes and fees?

For the third straight year, state revenues are basically flat while costs -- especially health care for state employees and the poor -- continue to grow. In addition, state pension costs are unexpectedly high and money from selling an unused casino license won't be available.

Blagojevich and legislative leaders have sharply different ideas about how best to close the budget deficit.

They met for about an hour Monday to discuss the budget but emerged saying there had been no progress. "We're a long way from getting this resolved," said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville.

Blagojevich has proposed about $500 million in higher business taxes and fees, although he said Monday night that he had agreed to drop the most unpopular ideas and settle for just $210 million.

He also wants to take a similar amount of special government funds set aside for purposes ranging from fire safety to environmental protection, as well as use borrowing and financial maneuvers.

He would cut spending by closing the Vandalia state prison and, under the latest version of the budget, the Pontiac prison while leaving thousands of state jobs unfilled. Blagojevich's proposal to close a St. Charles prison youth camp has been dropped.

But he proposed increasing school funding by $400 million and health care for the poor by about $600 million to cover increasing expenses and to add more people to state health care programs.

The Democratic governor describes his $54 billion budget as a way to invest in children and health care while fixing a tax system that has been skewed to favor big business.

But critics from both parties argue the governor and his Senate Democratic allies are promising more than the state can afford to deliver.

Led by House Speaker Madigan, the critics say the governor's budget would spend money the state doesn't have and endanger jobs by increasing the cost of doing business in Illinois.

They propose deeper cuts elsewhere in the budget and smaller increases -- or no increases at all -- for schools and health care. They also have floated a series of possible revenue ideas, from gambling expansion to taxing the sale of iced tea, that have been rejected by the governor.

Despite the serious policy questions, lawmakers say the dispute is also a power struggle between the governor, Madigan and Jones -- all Chicago Democrats.

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Illinois Senate rejects popular school construction program

John O'connor/Associated Press Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- A $2.2 billion plan to continue a popular state-sponsored school construction program was blocked in the Senate Monday, while in the House, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed Gov. Rod Blagojevich's weakened plan to revamp the State Board of Education.

The state started the construction program six years ago to help schools expand or replace overcrowded and crumbling buildings.

The plan would have extended it for four more years, but Senate Republicans complained that the state had no way to pay for it. They also worried about transferring management of the program from the independent State Board of Education to the Capital Development Board, which answers directly to Blagojevich, a Democrat.

The plan got 31 "yes" votes, five short of the super-majority needed to approve more state borrowing. Fourteen senators voted "no," and 12 voted "present."

"You are going to give the governor some influence and power over the construction and funding of your schools that he's never had before, and I don't know why you want to do it," said Sen. Dan Cronin, R-Elmhurst.

Blagojevich has made education a focus of the spring legislation session with his push for greater control over the state's education administration, which he has criticized as an inefficient, "Soviet-style bureaucracy."

Lawmakers objected to his original plan to gut the board and create an Education Department directly under his control. But in a compromise announced by the governor and legislative leaders on Friday, they agreed to give the governor more control over the board's membership.

The plan approved by the House would let Blagojevich replace seven of nine policymaking board members this summer, with future governors having the power to replace all nine board members while in office.

It also would require the board to make long-term policy plans, reduce red tape for schools and offer districts the chance to enter a statewide buying pool for supplies.

Blagojevich said it would give governors a greater say in public education, even though it falls far short of what he wanted.

The legislation, approved 116-1 by the House, must return to the Senate for agreement on House changes.

"This is a firm foundation so we can move forward and work on some of the problems that are extremely vexing in this state," said Rep. Renee Kosel, R-New Lenox.

Lawmakers said approving the reforms means the Legislature has no excuse now for not tackling problems with the state's school funding system, which is highly reliant on property taxes and considered unfair by some.

"We have a responsibility to the children of the state of Illinois that, whether they grow up in Evanston or Ford Heights, they have the chance to succeed," Rep. David Miller, D-Calumet City, said. "This is a step in the right direction."

In the Senate, the debate over extending the school construction program also focused on funding and gubernatorial control.

Republicans argued that it would be irresponsible to approve borrowing for the program without revenue earmarked to pay it back. When the program began, the General Assembly raised taxes on cigarettes, telephone calls and riverboat casinos to cover the cost, but that revenue is still paying off the bonds issued then.

"We had a revenue stream; there is none here," said Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson of Greenville.

But Sen. Patrick Welch, who sponsored the bill, said Republicans refused to vote for revenue-raising plans, such as the one to close corporate tax loopholes that squeaked out of the Senate earlier this month but failed in the House.

Welch insisted politics wouldn't play a role in which schools get state aid and he accused Republicans of voting against schools and children.

"Pulling the rug out from under them is something they'll have to explain tomorrow," Welch said.

The bills are SB3000 and SB3001.

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Local districts hope state brings back building funds

$2 billion grant program would be cut from the state budget

Matt Hanley, Beacon News

YORKVILLE — When an addition was put on the high school here and a new middle school was built in 1998, the Yorkville School District applied for $4.25 million from the state's school construction grant program.

The money has yet to arrive, and now officials have learned it might never come.

Yorkville and other rapidly expanding districts are hoping that a plan to cut the popular construction grants program out of the state budget will somehow wiggle back into the final budget. But as it sits now, the $2.2 billion program was rejected by state senators, and school districts are wondering what will happen to their planned projects.

"They're already doing away with something we haven't even received yet," said Yorkville Superintendent Thomas Engler. "If they're not going to fund it, don't promise it to us."

The grant program has been around for six years and provides funding for new construction. Both statewide and locally, the program has been an extremely popular way to return taxpayer dollars to the district. However, the $550 million allotments were scheduled to expire this year.

State Sen. Pat Welch, D-Peru, introduced a bill that would have extended the program, but his efforts fell five votes short of passage Monday in a largely partisan vote.

Senate Republicans opposed the legislation because it would give the program's oversight duties to an agency that reports to the governor. In the past, the State Board of Education had been in charge of the construction program.

"It's Chicago ward committee politics frankly at it's worst, applied statewide," said State Sen. Chris Lauzen, a Republican who represents Aurora.

Lauzen said construction grants are "one of the best programs in the state," but he voted against Welch's bill because he felt it put too much power in the hands of Chicago politicians. Lauzen said he didn't feel comfortable relying on "just the good nature of downtown Chicago politicians" to fund other projects.

But other local legislators from both sides felt strongly the bill was vital to their growing districts.

A representative from the office of Tom Cross, R-Oswego, said the state representative considers getting the bill back into the budget "a top priority."

Press spokesman Scott Hallaron from Welch's office said the senator expects this legislation is so popular it will be back. "As it sits right now," he said, "my guess is we haven't seen the last of it."

In the meantime, it's still not clear whether other districts can count on any further state funding.

"It would definitely help the Oswego School District, but at this point, we're not banking on getting any funds," said Oswego assistant superintendent Joel Murphy.

Oswego has received around $20 million from the program for construction on several new schools, including Oswego East High School. Murphy said the district will move ahead with necessary construction because they need seats for students.

Facing a similar, if not worse problem, Engler agreed with Murphy's assessment.

"Last we heard, we're next on the list (to get funding)," Engler said, pointing out that $4.2 million would be equivalent to half a grade school in the expanding district. "It's one of the few programs that are really beneficial to growth districts."

So now the schools will have sit and watch, like students waiting for that last bell before summer vacation.

"It would be in my thought that the district would certainly go after (grants) again," said Tom Hammond, chief operations officer for West Aurora School District, where the state has provided more than $2 million for the construction of Fearn Elementary School. "That's taxpayer money coming back. Any time school funding is being threatened, we're watching very closely."

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Businesses, schools wary of tax cap

John Roszkowski, Libertyville Review, 6/3/04

Some area lawmakers say new legislation that would cap property assessment increases will provide welcome relief to overburdened taxpayers, but many schools and businesses fear the impact it could have on them.

The legislation, known as Senate Bill 2112, has passed both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly and is awaiting signature by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The legislation, which passed the Senate by a 30-27 margin last week, would provide for a 7 percent a year cap on residential property assessment increases. It also increases the homestead exemption discount for homeowners and senior citizens and increases the income eligibility for the senior citizen assessment freeze from $40,000 to $45,000.

"I think it's time for property tax relief. It's something we've talked about for years and don't do anything about it. This legislation is true property tax relief for homeowners," said State Sen. Terry Link, D-30th, of Vernon Hills, who was chief sponsor of the legislation in the Senate.

Rebecca Rausch, a spokesperson for Blagojevich, said the governor plans to sign the legislation.

In Lake County and most other Illinois counties, the County Board would have to vote on whether to impose the 7 percent a year assessment freeze. Lake County officials say they will look at the issue once the legislation is signed by the governor.

"We really want to look at this bill and see if it will give tax relief to our citizens," said Lake County Board Chairman Suzi Schmidt, R-3rd, of Lake Villa. "We're really going to study it."

Schmidt said the County Board has not yet discussed the legislation and would likely evaluate several factors such as the impact to businesses and schools and whether it would provide tax relief to homeowners.

Schools

Many local school districts are concerned the assessment freeze legislation could hurt their budgets.

Mark Friedman, superintendent of Libertyville Elementary School District 70, said he's concerned that similar to the tax cap legislation that was enacted several years ago in Illinois, schools could end up losing revenue if the assessment cap is instituted.

"We're still reeling from the last tax caps that were enacted about 10 years ago. It's really impacted the amount of revenue we have for our schools. If this is going to be another cap that's going to hit us just as hard, we'd might as well close our doors," he said.

Friedman said since the tax cap legislation was enacted in the early 1990s, District 70's overall tax rate has actually gone down for many years, limiting the amount of revenue the school district could request from taxpayers. In the last four or five years, he said, the school district's tax rate has declined from about $3.18 to $2.58 per $100 assessed valuation.

Rick Taylor, superintendent of Fremont School District 79 in Mundelein, said it's too early to tell what impact the legislation would have on Fremont schools. In recent years, Taylor said the school district's total equalized assessed valuation has not increased by more than 7 percent a year. In most years, it's averaged between 4 and 6 percent, but was 6.9 percent this past year, he said.

"At this moment, we don't see much impact but conditions change from year to year. Potentially it could have an impact (on our revenue)," he said.

Taylor is concerned the assessment legislation is a Band-Aid approach to the problems of school funding in the state and may create more problems than it will solve.

"The legislation was created, in my opinion, because of the state legislature's refusal to do anything to address the funding issue for schools in Illinois," said Taylor. "The over-reliance on the property taxes has just increased through the years, while the state level of funding as a percentage has decreased since the 1970s."

Businesses

Businesses also have some concerns. Dwight Houchins, president of the GLMV Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses are concerned the legislation will simply shift a greater share of the tax burden to businesses. "Basically it's a cap on assessments of residential property and it's not good for business," he said.

"Businesses can either make money or lose money, and if they lose money, they either go out of business or leave the state," Houchins said. "This is probably one of the most dangerous things that's been proposed in terms of tax legislation because of its negative impact on business."

State Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-51st, of Mundelein, who opposed the legislation in the House, said by some estimates the legislation would cost businesses in Cook County alone about $700 million over three years. Estimates have not yet been compiled on the impact it would have on Lake County businesses, but Sullivan believes it would be significant.

Needed relief

Supporters, however, say the legislation will provide long needed tax relief to homeowners and will not have as detrimental effect on businesses or schools as critics contend.

Link said that property taxes for homeowners have been escalating at a much faster rate in recent years than real estate taxes on businesses. He estimates businesses would only see about a 1.6 to 2 percent increase in their property taxes as a result of the legislation.

State Sen. Susan Garrett, D-29th, of Lake Forest, who supported the legislation, said from the research she's seen, she does not believe the legislation will have a significant negative impact on schools and it will provide much needed tax relief to homeowners whose property taxes are escalating out of control.

"I voted for this primarily because it gives needed property tax relief to our senior citizens and also to residents on the verge of leaving their neighborhoods or communities because their property taxes are going up by double-digit increases every year," said Garrett. "We are at the point now many people on fixed incomes simply cannot afford to stay in their homes. To me, that's a crisis."

Garrett said the legislation has a three-year sunset clause "so we can reassess in three years whether we want to continue the 7 percent cap or if there are better options we should pursue."

State Rep. Kathy Ryg, D-59th, of Vernon Hills, also voted for the legislation. "One of my top priorities is providing meaningful property tax relief," said Ryg, in a written statement. "We sought out solutions that will main high property values but reduce the burden of high assessments."

Some homeowners are skeptical whether they will see tax relief from the legislation.

Larry Goodnow of Mundelein said the tax bill on his home went up about 19 percent this year or by $785. About 14 percent of that was because of increases in the assessed valuation of his property.

However, Goodnow doubts whether he would see a significant reduction in taxes if the 7 percent a year assessment cap is enacted. He believes most taxing bodies will try to recoup assessment increases in years when homeowners' property values are below the 7 percent cap level.

"I personally think all it's going to do is spread the pain out over a period of years," he said.

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School construction grants work well the way they are

Lincoln Daily News, 6/4/04

SPRINGFIELD -- State Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, says the state's school construction grant program works well the way it is. Bomke voted present on a plan to shift control of the program under the governor's Capitol Development Board

"Many schools in my district have benefited from this program. In fact, Rochester is first on the list right now," said Bomke. "If we change the way grants are awarded and priority need is determined, there is no guarantee that local schools will receive grants in the future. I cannot risk jeopardizing my local schools' ability to qualify for future grants."

Senate Bill 3001 not only shifted the program's administration, but it also failed to offer any funding source or repayment plan.

"To my knowledge, school construction has always had a dedicated funding source," said Bomke. "Given the state's budget problems, the responsible approach is to know how we are going to pay for this program before we promise the money to school districts."

Bomke said he wants to see a school construction plan that does not jeopardize future grants and contains a full funding plan, including bond repayment.

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Four–school convergence group names Committee of 10

By DAVID GRIMES for The Hawk Eye, 6/3/04

MACOMB, Ill. — The Regional Office of Education for Hancock and McDonough counties has released the names of the people selected to serve on the Committee of 10 for four school districts pursuing a high school convergence proposal to be placed on the April 2005 ballot.

Dallas City, Carthage, Nauvoo–Colusa and LaHarpe school officials met at Nauvoo–Colusa High School last week to form the committee.

Committee of 10 members representing Nauvoo–Colusa are Dan Moffitt and Rich McGhghy, representing Carthage are Marvin Boyer and Kevin Deitrich, representing LaHarpe are Rex Johnson and Nancy Butler, and representing Dallas City are Janet Vaas and Dean Hardrick.

The remaining two committee seats selected randomly will go to Donna Tracey, Carthage, and Monica Crim, LaHarpe.

Convergence is a merger option that affects only the high schools of two or more school districts. A school consolidation involves combining pre–kindergarten through 12–grade classes from two or more school systems.

The four–district Hancock County group shares a geographical center along Illinois 94 between Carthage and Illinois 9.

The next meeting date has not yet been confirmed, but will take place later this month.

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Cell phones a discipline issue in schools  

By JEFF KOLKEY, Northwest Herald, 6/4/04

Crystal Lake South juniors Stephanie Simpson and Christy McDowell remember communicating with each other during classes the old-fashioned way.

They would pass folded-up notes written on actual sheets of paper.

However, that mode of written communication is quickly becoming extinct. Passing notes risks interception and embarrassment. Now, teenagers just text message each other's cell phones.

"We text message all the time," McDowell said. "You have to hide it under your desk."

"Or in your purse," Simpson said.

The prevailing rule in McHenry County schools is that students can have cell phones, but they are not supposed to be turned on during the school day unless students receive permission or there is an emergency.

When teachers or administrators see a student using a cell phone, they can confiscate it until the end of the day. For a second offense, a parent must pick it up.

McHenry East High School Dean Mike Przybylski said the rules are mostly the same throughout area schools. It is rare for students to have more than one or two offenses, but some do, risking detention or even suspension for multiple violations.

Przybylski said he never has suspended anyone for cell-phone use.

In District 158, the district's policy on cell phones was beefed up recently to account for phones with photographic and video capabilities, and for personal digital assistants.

Officials said there was concern that the contraptions could be used to invade other students' privacy, although no problems have been seen so far.

A ban on cell phones was lifted in District 300 schools last year, Hampshire High School Principal Christ Kalamatas said.

"The policy here a couple years ago was you were suspended if you brought in a cell phone," Kalamatas said. "Now it's become more of a necessity to ensure communication for parents. Cell phones have almost become a way of life for everybody."

When clocks strike 2:45 p.m. at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, plenty of students can be seen pulling out cell phones as they walk out the building, making plans for after school, checking in with parents or arranging for rides.

Jacobs senior Frank Cook said he had to serve a Saturday detention because of his cell phone and that he was threatened with a suspension when a teacher suspected him of receiving a phone call during a final exam.

Cook said he had to bring an itemized bill to school to prove that it was not his cell phone that rang during the test.

But he said having the convenience of communication is worth the risks students take using cell phones. He works after school and needs to be able to call home, he said.

"My parents like to know where I am and to make sure I am safe," Cook said.

Jacobs sophomore Kassie Quinn said there is only one way she ever has gotten into any trouble over her cell-phone use.

"If I go over on my bill," Quinn said, "usually for text messaging."

Once adept at using the phones for text messaging, teenagers can type at speeds similar to a typist on a full-size keyboard – but they just use their thumbs. The phones help by taking educated guesses at which letter is needed from the several available on each button.

Keeping the phones on silent mode means no one else has to know the students are communicating with each other.

School officials said they are aware that cell phones and similar devices could be used to cheat on tests or share classroom information. They say it is just another thing to watch for, like a student looking at someone else's paper, storing answers in the memory banks of a graphing calculator or writing some answers in the palm of a hand.

"Teachers have been pretty vigilant," Jacobs Principal Linda Robinson said. "Obviously the situation dictates what happens [for disciplinary action]. If a phone rings in class, that's one thing. It's another if you answer it and start talking."

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Educational reform for intellectual lightweights  

Peoria Journal Star Editorial, June 4, 2004

In a state government that faces some really formidable challenges, this year's "Biggest Waste of Time and Effort Award" goes to the governor and others who championed pointless, power-grab changes in the way the State Board of Education operates.

As part of a compromise with a governor who originally wanted to gut the current school bureaucracy in favor of another one that would answer directly to him, the Legislature voted to give Rod Blagojevich the authority to appoint a new State Board of Education, though the Senate and House bills differ as to some specifics, including when and how many at any given time. Ultimately they'll work that part out.

Oh, it's not as bad as it could have been. The governor originally wanted a provision that would have allowed him to dismiss members of the nine-member board "at will"; the Senate, at least, seems unwilling to give him that. It's not even that the State Board as is has been a lean, mean educational machine, by any stretch. It's just that, once again, the citizens of Illinois have been led to believe that a problem has been fixed when nothing has been accomplished at all.

This does nothing to improve school finances in a state where 80 percent of districts are deficit-spending. It doesn't put one more additional teacher in an Illinois classroom or guarantee that teacher will really know her stuff. It does nothing to ensure that this state's children will come to school more prepared to learn. It does nothing to make the State Board more relevant. We're not even confident it's constitutional. Oh, we forgot, it does limit a state superintendent's term to four years, while also allowing schools to participate in a pooled purchasing program, though we're not exactly sure what barriers there were to that in the first place. It borders on hyperbole to even call this legislation window dressing.

Maybe Illinoisans should be relieved it doesn't do more harm, though we're not even convinced of that. Indeed, this legislation now imposes politics on an agency that has pretty much operated independently of them, with a sitting governor who already has betrayed his bias to one part of the state, during a legislative session which could have been devoted to addressing some far more serious issues.

However this ultimately gets ironed out, it is educational reform for intellectual lightweights. What a joke.

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===========================================================================

NATIONAL

We are the parents. Is anyone listening?

No Child Left Behind aims at a dialogue with parents. But reaching them has not been easy.

Teresa Méndez, The Christian Science Monitor

NEW YORK – A decade has slipped by since a fiery group of mothers in the South Bronx set out to make their voices heard in their children's schools.

Lucretia Jones, whose two children are now grown, says that parents in her neighborhood had previously been viewed as outsiders, only as valuable as the cookies they brought to bake sales. Today, Ms. Jones says, at least she and her peers are "sitting at the table" with the school administrators who once locked them out.

From her vantage point - as a lifelong Bronx resident and founding member of Mothers on the Move (MOM) - parents have made genuine strides toward opening educators' ears and school doors.

But she offers no credit to the provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that call for a deeper dialogue between schools and families, particularly in low-income communities.

In fact, says the seasoned community activist, "I really didn't realize parental participation was part of [NCLB]."

It's been a problem for the implementors of the new education law. Some of its key provisions prompt states, districts, and schools to notify parents about everything from their children's progress to their options for transferring out of low-performing schools.

But a study to be released this week, based on conversations with 26 grass-roots organizations, suggests that as of yet many parents - even those involved in their children's schools, remain unaware of these options, or bewildered as to how to exercise them.

Yet at the same time there is evidence that some districts and schools are making conscious - and promising - efforts to reach out to families as a direct result of NCLB.

If nothing else, NCLB has codified the crucial role that parent involvement plays in academic achievement, a role researchers have been promoting for some time.

Yet while a multitude of information, detailing everything from reading scores to graduation rates may be available, parents and organizers say few families know where to look, or how to parse the vast quantities of data once they do find it.

One problem may be with the way all this information is disseminated.

Many districts rely on websites. Yet to view a website, points out Lauren E. Allen, senior program director for accountability at the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a national network based in Chicago, a parent must have access to a computer - and know how to navigate the Internet.

Even the old-fashioned, paper letters can be confusing. Without a forum to "engage in face-to-face question and answering," says Ms. Allen, parents often feel lost.

"Testing, accountability, teacher quality - these are not bread-and-butter issues," she adds. "They're complex."

At this point, she says that communication between schools and families is best described as a one-way exchange rather than a meaningful dialogue.

In an effort to more clearly convey state test results to parents, Pennsylvania unveiled a new format last week for reporting scores. To be released in August, these "prettier" reports will also include suggested reading lists and activities that parents can undertake with their children.

The change wasn't "exactly spurred" by NCLB, says Brian Christopher, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but he adds that the increased testing and reporting required by the law affirmed the need for a clearer way to communicate results with parents.

Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a colleague, have found that districts and schools across the country are making similar efforts to connect with families as a result of NCLB.

Language and cultural barriers, which have traditionally stood between urban families and their schools, add still another layer of complication.

In Denver, where more than half of students are Latino, many come from families with parents who are recent immigrants, some undocumented.

Though NCLB recommends that districts and schools translate important materials whenever possible, Pam Martinez, codirector of the community group Padres Unidos, or Parents United, doubts that the parents she works with understand NCLB, let alone the options it offers them.

Of the country's urban school districts, Chicago parents may be best integrated into decisionmaking at their schools. In that city, parents elect a local school council that in turn hires a principal and controls the school budget.

Shortly after NCLB was in place, the Illinois branch of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the nation's largest organization of low and moderate-income families, resolved to determine whether Chicago teachers were "highly qualified," as required by federal law.

"We saw NCLB as a possible tool for parents to really improve the quality of instruction in the classrooms," says Madeline Talbott, head organizer for Illinois ACORN in Chicago.

Yet even for a savvy group like ACORN, just finding the state's definition of qualified proved problematic. Currently, highly qualified teachers are those who have passed a state test in their subject area and hold an Illinois teacher's certification.

But the hurdles encountered by ACORN underscore the challenges a parent trying to uncover this information on her own would face.

Today, the district regularly sends out letters about its teachers, says Ms. Talbott, but often they aren't particularly informative.

One laudatory note might sing the praises of a Yale educated teacher who earned his Master's from Harvard and taught students in South Africa - without any mention of his preparation to teach chemistry to Chicago schoolchildren.

"We have some tools, but we're still on this long march to get to the point where they're useful," says Ms. Talbott. "We're not there yet, but we'll get there."

John Beam, executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University in New York - which, along with Cross City Campaign and the Center for Community Change in Washington, conducted the conversations with the 26 grass-roots organizations - wonders what happens once parents have discovered that their teachers are flawed.

"So we've demonstrated ... that we need to get better teachers in our classrooms," he says. "But nothing in No Child Left Behind makes it easier to do that."

In another effort to foster stronger partnerships between parents and schools, New York this year hired parent coordinators to act as liaisons in each of the city's 1,200 schools.

The degree to which they've opened lines of communication varies by school, says Gail Gadsden, who fills the position at PS 212 in the Bronx and is a member of MOM.

At her school, Ms. Gadsden boasts, parents now volunteer one day a week to tutor their children in their classrooms.

But most of the parents Gadsden works with understand only fragments of NCLB. They may know, for instance, about the option to switch their child out of a struggling school, but not how to go about doing that.

Whose fault is this gap in understanding?

"I'm not going to blame the government," she says. "They put the information out there, and we have to read it."

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Calif. schools sued for suspending teen

AP, June 2, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- A school district was accused Wednesday of violating the civil rights of a student who was suspended for wearing a T-shirt saying "Homosexuality is Shameful."

The federal lawsuit against Poway Unified School District claims Tyler Chase Harper, 16, was suspended for expressing his religious beliefs during the "Day of Silence" on April 21.

During the national event, high school and college students were urged to remain silent to show support for homosexuals, bisexuals and trans-gender students.

Sharon Raffer, a spokeswoman for the district, declined to comment.

"When are public school officials going to learn they are not allowed to silence constitutionally protected student speech just because they disagree with the student?" said Robert Tyler, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed the suit.

Harper is a Christian who believes "homosexual behavior is immoral, damaging to the practitioners and to human society in general, and is demonstrably contrary to the teachings of the Bible," the lawsuit says.

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School counselors stretched thin  

AP, May 28, 2004 

SAN RAFAEL, California -- As they help students deal with college anxieties, peer pressures and troubles at home, school counselors see another crisis emerging -- their own.

Assigned to handle both the academic and emotional challenges of children, counselors find themselves stretched by caseloads that average 477 students, and questions about how to best serve all kids.

"I'm trying to do all the things I used to do, but I'm just not able to do it as well," said Sue-Ann Joy, head counselor at San Rafael High School, where district budget cuts have shrunk the advising staff to two full-time positions, or one per 500 students.

In her district, for example, that means less time for advising sophomores about college, less help for students getting D's, less monitoring to see why some kids aren't in school.

Nationwide, the ratio of students to counselors is about 477-to-1, an average that's dropped since 1992 but is still almost twice the 250-to-1 recommended by the profession.

In states such as California -- which has just under 1,000 kids per counselor, the heaviest load in the country -- counseling is again on the list of possible budget cuts.

Younger children get less service, too, said counselor Laurie Telder, who covers four elementary schools in San Rafael, a bayfront city between San Francisco and California wine country.

"It is the slow burn," she said. "The kids that don't get the intervention -- oftentimes you will hear about them in high school, doing something serious, a suicidal attempt or a serious aggressive act on another student."

Expanding duties

At the elementary school level, counselors help students start thinking about careers, build communication skills and develop healthy attitudes about themselves and their peers.

By high school, counselors assist students with study habits, financial aid, college recommendations, class schedules, transitions between grades and high-stakes tests. Yet they also help with eating disorders, girlfriend trouble, deaths of friends and teen pregnancies.

The people who set school budgets know the importance of counselors, but other areas get spending priority, such as helping children with disabilities and raising achievement in the poorest schools, said Dan Fuller, lobbyist for the National School Boards Association.

"It's about the education of children," Fuller said, "and that has to be the priority."

These days, many counselors find themselves increasingly assigned to monitor cafeterias, bus zones and detention rooms. So, for school leaders, the American School Counselor Association has come up with a list of appropriate responsibilities for counselors -- interpreting student test results is fine, for example, but giving those tests is not.

On a typical day, Joy starts at 7 a.m. to see teachers before their classes and parents who can't come at other times to San Rafael High. She tries to spend most of her day with students, typically fitting eight to 10 sessions into every 90 minutes. Then, after school, she works until 7 p.m., usually to reach more parents.

After budget cuts in her district, the local education foundation raised $67,000 to partially restore counseling services; it hopes to raise twice as much for next year.

It may need to. As Joy heads toward retirement after 41 years, she's learned that the district may cut back to one full-time counselor at her school.

"How could a counselor establish any kind of relationship with a student under those circumstances?" said school senior Lauren Farrer. "Seriously, can you remember 900 names?"

Budget cuts

That personal relationship is critical, students said, as they talked of gaining confidence to be leaders and staying motivated. But access is getting tougher.

Public school counselors spend more time on college advising than on any other single issue, national surveys show. Yet the time crunch has shifted some of that college advising to community groups, often funded with private dollars to serve city and rural kids.

More than seven in 10 counselors say their ability to help students deal with the competitive college admission process has suffered because of budget cuts, the National Association for College Admission Counseling found in a 2003 survey.

Counseling has led to higher test scores when all students receive it, said John Carey, director of the National Center for School Counseling Outcome Research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The benefits come in varied ways for students, he said, from developing time-management skills and dealing with peer pressure to understanding how their studies are relevant in the real world.

Counselors are also being asked to become leaders in school reform, including the push to set higher expectations for minorities, said Reese House, director of the National Center for Transforming School Counseling at the nonprofit Education Trust.

Students at San Rafael High School put counseling on par with English classes and libraries -- just something you need to run a school right.

"Being a high school student, it's really easy to get distracted with all the little things going around," said Jonathan Smith, a junior with hopes of a football scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "To have someone always watching you makes you want to do better. You just want to make her proud."

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Taking Candy From Pupils? School Vending Bill Says Yes  

By MARC SANTORA, New York Times, June 2, 2004

ALBANY, June 1 - After a spirited debate during which feeding candy to schoolchildren was equated with giving them pornography and drugs, the State Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that would severely limit what could be sold in school vending machines.

Under the proposed law, schools would be banned from selling food that fails to meet minimal nutritional guidelines. That includes "hard candy, chocolate candy, jellies, gums, marshmallow candies, fondant, licorice, spun candy and candy coated popcorn."

The bill would also ban the sale of soda water and other beverages that contain caffeine or sweeteners. New York City already bans soda water, though it recently entered into a controversial contract with Snapple to sell its fruit drinks.

The state law would allow similar sales and, unlike the city, would not require that the drinks be 100 percent fruit juice.

Assemblywoman Sandra R. Galef, a Democrat who represents parts of Westchester and Putnam Counties and who sponsored the legislation, said that while individual districts across the nation had imposed similar bans, no state had put in place such a comprehensive measure.

Opponents of the bill said that many schools had become dependent on the money generated by the vending machines.

But Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, said it was a "life-and-death matter" because of the country's obesity epidemic.

James N. Tedisco, a Republican from Schenectady, called Mr. Gottfried's language overheated and said he worried that hysteria over junk food could be taken to the extreme, leading to what he called the Twinkie law.

"You have to be 21 to buy a Ho-Ho," he said, painting an image of a world where high fat-food was as regulated and as scorned as tobacco. "It is obscene," he said.

John J. McEneny, a Democrat from Albany, responded to Mr. Tedisco's comments by saying simply, "There is too much sugar in the members' lounge."

But the debate as a whole was unusual in a place where the fate of bills is largely decided before they come to the floor. Nearly two dozen members took turns speaking on the issue on Tuesday.

Some expressed broad support, while others objected to specific foods being included in the banned section.

In a speech that earned him the nickname "Willie Wonka" from a Democratic colleague, William L. Parment, a Democrat from Jamestown, gave a passionate defense of chocolate.

"I object to this inclusion of chocolate in non-nutritious foods," he said. He then said a Mars bar had less fat and fewer calories than a hot dog and noted that chocolate had long been a staple in military survival kits.

"Chocolate has helped many downed pilots survive," he said.

In the end, the bill passed 139-5. While chocolate would be banned, chocolate milk would still be deemed acceptable.

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Dividing the Sexes, for the Tough Years  

By JANE GROSS, New York Times, May 31, 2004

DOBBS FERRY, N.Y., May 30 - The eighth graders at the Masters School have been reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" and discussing why a 13-year-old cooped up in a crowded hideout would bare her soul in a journal.

In a typical coeducational classroom, said Everett J. Wilson, head of the middle school here, girls on the cusp of adolescence would identify with Anne and freely share their feelings about the book. Boys, by contrast, would snicker, swagger or snooze. Anything to avoid making an unguarded comment.

But this is no normal eighth-grade classroom. At the Masters School, and a small number of other private schools in the United States and England, coeducation and single-sex education mix in an original way: Boys and girls learn together in elementary and high school but are taught in separate classrooms for the three tumultuous years in between. It is a new compromise in an age-old debate, plus a recognition that Mars and Venus are never as far apart as they are in middle school.

Separated by sex, the boys' and girls' observations about Anne's diary were equally thoughtful. Anne was a moody teenager, fighting with her mother and attracted to a boy for the first time, the girls said. Anne was having an identity crisis, the boys agreed, sitting at the same seminar table an hour later; she needed a safe, private place to express herself.

Masters, formerly an all girls' school, chose this configuration when it went coed in 1996. The Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis and the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., did the same during mergers of girls' and boys' schools in the 1990's. And in England, a similar arrangement is gaining popularity, with three prestigious schools about to join a half-dozen others that already teach children in single-sex classes between the ages of 11 and 16.

This island of sex segregation takes into account the different learning styles of boys and girls; the uneven pace of their physical, emotional and cognitive development; the hormonal assault at puberty when the part of the brain that governs judgment is still forming; and the effect of a sexualized culture that has made 13 the new 17. It also assumes that if girls gained confidence learning in single-sex math and science classes, popular for the last decade, boys might get a comparable boost in the humanities.

"This is the single most critical time in a child's life, and we are asking them to grow up way too fast," Dr. Wilson said. "This way, the girls get the opportunity to find their voice and the boys get the opportunity to find their voice in an appropriate way. The conventional wisdom is that girls benefit and for boys it's a wash. But we don't buy that here."

Both groups welcomed the separation for now, with the girls unembarrassed to squeal at a spider in their midst and the boys free to bang their fists into baseball mitts during class. "We're too different at this age," said Lauren Bernstein, an eighth grader who nevertheless has a boyfriend who sends her off with a hug before a science test. "When we're like forming ourselves, this makes it easier to be open."

The effectiveness of separating boys and girls is in the eye of the beholder.

The American Association of University Women, which popularized separate math and science classes with a 1992 report that said girls were being shortchanged in schools, reviewed the existing research on single-sex education in primary and secondary schools and reported in 1998 that the data was inconclusive. There were positive results for some students in some settings, the association found. But there was no way of telling if gender segregation was the key variable or if boys and girls were simply getting better teaching in the smaller classes found in private schools, which offer a majority of the single-sex classes. Developmental psychologists and others who study gender differences in adolescents say that traditional markers of academic achievement are the wrong measuring sticks. This isn't about how boys and girls do; it's about how they feel.

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Valedictorians reverse gender gap

BETSY HAMMOND, The Oregonian, 6/3/04

They are the stars of nearly every high school in the metro area -- straight-A students who've led student government, played varsity sports, staged school plays, headed service clubs. They are tomorrow's engineers, doctors, teachers, astrophysicists, nurses and lawyers.

And overwhelmingly, they are girls.

Across the Portland-Vancouver area, The Oregonian found, girls make up 71 percent of the students in the Class of 2004 who earned the grades necessary to be honored as tops in their class.

Yes, they're a brainy bunch -- but not brainier than guys, say top-ranked girls such as Corissa Lee at Gresham High, Laura Hartle at Hillsboro's Century High and Rachael Averi at McMinnville High.

Instead, they say, many girls have a perfectionist urge that propels them to finish their homework, study hard for every test and put a flourish on routine assignments to get those As.

They are part of a nationwide crop of girls who have been targeted since they were little with messages designed to correct the inequities of their mothers' generation: You can succeed at math and science; every career is open to you; aim for the academic stars.

And it's worked, experts say.

Hundreds of area girls in the Class of 2004 earned As in the hardest courses their schools offer.

Take Nicole Johnson, one of 15 valedictorians at McMinnville High this year. No boys made the cut.

Johnson played varsity softball and headed the school's hunger-relief club while taking Advanced Placement calculus, AP history, physics and fifth-year French -- and aced them all. She's headed to Oregon State University to study civil engineering and figures being a woman in a male-dominated field will be a plus.

"More power to girls, I guess," she says of McMinnville's all-female valedictorian slate.

The problem, some educators say, is that boys haven't been similarly targeted with messages to help them succeed in school.

There are no book clubs just for guys, no summer camps to lure boys into the humanities, no mentor programs to show guys that finishing homework on time is the manly thing to do, researchers say.

During the 1990s, girls maintained their edge over boys in reading and writing and began to overtake them in biology, in chemistry, sometimes even in calculus. For generations, researchers say, girls have posted higher grade-point averages than boys. But only in the past decade have they accomplished that while taking as many tough math and science courses as boys.

Men still earn more degrees in science and snag nearly all the tenure-track professorships in computer science and physics. They far outnumber and outearn women in technical fields. Men dominate the upper reaches of power, from the U.S. Senate to the Fortune 500.

It took less than 30 years for longstanding male dominance in college to be reversed, lightning speed for social change of that magnitude, says Cornelius Riordan, professor of sociology at Providence College, who has tracked gender differences in education for years. In the early 1970s, 60 percent of college students were male, he says. Now, roughly 60 percent of college students are female, he says.

Oregon's most selective public university is no different. Selected under gender-blind criteria, the freshman class at the University of Oregon is 56 percent female.

Top seniors in area high schools point to what they see as a stumbling block for male achievement: sports.

Male success on the playing field is glorified, they say. When educators and parents tell boys that classroom success is just as important, it rings hollow, top students say.

Michael Teschke, one of four male valedictorians among 17 at Portland's Wilson High, has experienced that. A varsity golfer who earned straight As, he's headed to Santa Clara University on an academic scholarship to study business management, with an eye toward owning his own business.

"When I have good golf scores, 10 or 20 people come up to me to congratulate me. Nobody pays that kind of attention to great grades. . . . If my buddy gets a scholarship for football, The Oregonian writes about it. But who knows if I got a scholarship for academics? Being a scholar will take (a boy) farther, but he will be more popular being an athlete," he says.

High school girls are driven to succeed in sports, too. But students say excusing weak grades with sports accomplishments doesn't work for girls.

"It's a double standard," says Laura Hartle, one of Century High's 12 valedictorians, 10 of whom are girls. "It's OK for a guy to be a dumb jock, but when a girl gets bad grades, they call her a ditz."

Hartle competes in elite figure skating competitions but also drove herself to earn straight As in precalculus, statistics, advanced economics and AP English. She's headed to the University of Portland and plans to become a doctor.

Amanda Cline played varsity basketball for McMinnville for three years. But rather than glory in her victories on the way home from games, she'd sit on the bus with a flashlight and a pile of books. A valedictorian, she will study forensic science at Western Oregon University and wants to join the FBI.

When this year's high school graduates were in kindergarten, Wellesley College researcher Susan Bailey wrote a report that made national headlines. Titled "How Schools Shortchange Girls," the study chronicled how teachers paid more attention to boys, steered girls away from math and science, and made schools more inviting to boys than girls.

Today, Hartle and her counterparts snicker at that idea. Bailey, who now heads the Wellesley Centers for Women, acknowledges huge gains have been made. She credits programs that resulted from attention to the study. There's still a lot of work to do to create equity for women in college, on faculties and in the workplace, she says.

In the meantime, she says, her research center and others are studying ways schools shortchange boys -- a problem that could prove harder to fix, she says.

"When we said girls don't get enough encouragement to do the same things boys do, everybody understood that. It was seen as a move up for girls. But when we say our boys should start doing the same things girls do, it's seen by many as a step down. Skills that girls have ought to be seen as good skills for boys, too."

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Kids' obesity may be worse than thought

By Cristina Rodriguez, Associated Press Writer, June 4, 2004

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Forty percent of public schoolchildren in Arkansas are overweight, and nearly one in four is obese, a sign that obesity among children nationwide is probably far worse than health officials had thought.

The findings are the broadest and most recent comprehensive look at children's weights, the result of a state law in Arkansas, where state officials have made obesity a top issue.

"I think we'll find as we go along that Arkansas is not that much more obese than other parts of the country," said Dr. Carden Johnston, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "(The) Arkansas data is the best that we have because it's cross-sectional."

The Arkansas numbers paint a more dire picture than previous national studies. Those have indicated that about 30 percent of American children are overweight or obese. Those falling into the obese category account for about 15 percent.

In Arkansas, about 22 percent of the children are considered obese while 18 percent are merely overweight. Fifty-eight percent are normal weight, and 2 percent underweight.

Those results, released Thursday in Williamsburg, Va., at a Time-ABC News obesity summit, represent 276,000 of Arkansas' 450,000 public school students.

"This is a childhood issue now and it's sobering to see the number of children who have it," Johnston said. "The whole society will take obesity more seriously."

Arkansas already has removed vending machines from elementary school campuses and set up a Child Health Advisory Committee to help parents get their children to normal weights.

"I hope we start seeing results immediately," said Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has lost more than 100 pounds since being diagnosed last year with diabetes. "A year from now we'll know parents are taking this seriously and encouraging healthier habits ... some as simple as saying, 'You're not going to sit in front of the computer screen with a bag of potato chips.'"

Last year Arkansas legislators passed a law requiring schools to find out the body-mass index of all schoolchildren and report to their parents. Health officials say the benefit of spotting at-risk children outweighs the stigma of branding them as too heavy.

"...It is more harmful not to identify the child as overweight," Johnston said. Studies show that childhood obesity can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

Nationwide, two-thirds of American adults are classified as either overweight or obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while some studies indicate a higher rate of people in the South are overweight than the national average, some researchers believe the Arkansas numbers are reflective of children across the country.

"This is a trend we're seeing nationwide. The lack of physical activity, the nutritional behaviors that we have developed over the years didn't start in Arkansas and it's not going to end in Arkansas," said Joy Rockenbach, program director at the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, which conducted the study. "If other states were collecting this info, we wouldn't see a difference."

Individual findings are sent to the students' parents with guidelines on a healthy lifestyle. Because the BMI calculation doesn't consider muscle mass, parents are asked to take overweight children to a doctor to see if their child is truly unhealthy.

"A parent may be aware that the child is overweight," Huckabee said, but may not realize the "very serious medical consequences" of obesity.

Johnston said the Arkansas study, because it is so far-reaching, will enable researchers to compare data across socio-economic and racial groups and identify trends.

Experts say children develop most eating habits in their home and changing attitudes there is important in the battle against obesity.

Carrie Roberson of Arkadelphia took her fourth-grade son to the doctor when his weight problem was diagnosed through the new school policy -- and he changed his behavior himself.

"We were not concerned about his health, it was just kind of having the heads-up that if we didn't watch the snacks and lack of physical activity he's in jeopardy," she said. "It was very good information. Having any kind of indicator on how we can keep our children healthy as a parent is useful."

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