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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – June 4 - 11, 2004



Illinois governor clashes with his own party /
Dems' hissing match stalls budget / Sun-Times
Governor wanted control, now he must prove himself / Pantagraph
Budget jam may help local schools / Daily Herald
Governor plays hardball / Belleville News-Democrat
Caught Cheating /
Quincy Herald-Whig
Afrocentric curriculum proposed for District 65 / Chicago Tribune
Batavia OK's background checks / Daily Herald

Schiller will appoint CEO / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
School isn't out but fun has begun / Chicago Tribune
Rhetoric heats up as lawmakers meet again on budget / Courier News
Middle school goes the way of junior high / Baltimore Sun
If it works in Chicago . . .  / Newsday
School Pushes Reading, Writing, Reform /
Washington Post
New group attacks education reform law / Palm Beach Post
'No Child' act should be fully funded / Cincinnati Enquirer
Missouri ranks 44th, Illinois 6th in teacher pay / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Reading school district, state in court over No Child Left Behind Act / Times Leader (PA)
Census: Spending Up for Public Schools / Miami Herald



Illinois governor clashes with his own party

Legislature is stalemated / Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has angered some fellow Democrats.

AP, 6/7/04

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois  -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich came into office as the charming replacement for an unpopular veteran of old-school politics. A youthful, Elvis-loving Democrat, he promised a new era of ethics and bipartisanship.

But now, just 18 months later, Blagojevich can't even attend a funeral without offending people. Some fellow Democrats call him a bully and consider him untrustworthy, and his poll numbers are plummeting.

Clashes with leaders of his own party have contributed to a stalemate over Illinois' $54 billion budget and pushed the Legislature into overtime.

"He's trying to act as the king, but Elvis is dead. It can't be 'I gave an edict and that's it,"' said one of his most vocal critics, Democratic state Sen. Denny Jacobs.

Politicians are not the only ones griping.

State employees are angry about his insults and threats of layoffs. Businesses complain he vilifies them while raising their taxes. He invariably shows up late for events, once holding up the funeral of a respected state senator. Blagojevich blamed the weather, though other prominent Chicago politicians made the trip without difficulty.

This week, women in both parties took offense when he implied Attorney General Lisa Madigan was shilling for her father, the House speaker, when she ruled the governor's plan to mortgage a state government building in Chicago unconstitutional. The Republican state treasurer accused him of chauvinism.

Blagojevich (pronounced blah-GOY-uh-vitch) insists all the friction is a result of his push to change the way business is done in Springfield.

"All the hue and cry you hear is what this process is, and that's what being governor is," he said. "You work through all of that. I welcome it."

The 47-year-old Chicago native and former congressman succeeded Republican Gov. George Ryan, who cleared out death row and suspended capital punishment but was also shadowed by a bribery scandal that resulted in federal charges after he had left office.

Blagojevich appeared to have all the allies he could need. For the first time in 25 years, a Democratic governor had Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

And during his first few months, Blagojevich got everything he wanted. His first state budget plugged a roughly $5 billion deficit and was rubber-stamped by lawmakers. Despite some annoyance over his decision to live in Chicago and rarely visit the Capitol, lawmakers cooperated with him.

Then they started to reverse some of the budget cuts.

Blagojevich went on the attack, calling them "drunken sailors" on a "spending orgy." He said they were making back-room deals to protect special interests.

He also branded the state Board of Education "a Soviet-style bureaucracy" in a State of the State address devoted almost entirely to its failings.

"That was a stunt to make somebody look bad so he could look good," said Democratic state Rep. Joseph Lyons. "I'm just tired of that. I'm just tired of this victimization of anybody who doesn't agree with him totally."

Charming and energetic, Blagojevich impresses people who meet him one-to-one. He seems baffled that anyone would be personally offended by his criticism. His remarks focus on groups, he says, not individuals.

His administration chalks up the legislative problems to inevitable differences of opinion, especially in dealing with this year's $2.3 billion deficit.

Aides deny the stalemate says anything about Blagojevich's leadership, noting he forged an alliance with the Senate president to fight for more education and health care money.

"A sign of poor leadership would be to cave in on those principles just to get an agreement or meet a deadline," said Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk.

Blagojevich relies heavily on polling to keep tabs on voter opinion; he paid at least $116,000 to a polling firm his first year in office.

The latest numbers are not good. Blagojevich's approval rating was 40 percent in a recent Chicago Tribune poll, down from 55 percent in February. A perception that he is losing public support could weaken him at the Capitol.

Speculation about Blagojevich's interest in higher office -- fueled by fund-raising trips to Hollywood and a prescription drug crusade that has drawn national attention -- has added to lawmakers' distrust. Some see his penchant for borrowing to balance the budget as a quick fix now that will leave the state paying long after Blagojevich has moved on.

The Republicans are watching for ways to turn Blagojevich's problems to their advantage.

"He's a very nice fellow, very outgoing, very gregarious and fun to talk to, but he has never been known as one who works hard at the governing process," said Rep. Lee Daniels, the former state Republican Party chairman. "That's starting to show now."


Dems' hissing match stalls budget

Dave McKinney, Sun-Times Springfield Bureau, 6/7/04

SPRINGFIELD -- A political sage used to having things his way.

A skilled but underappreciated veteran lawmaker finally getting his first taste of power.

A freshman governor with little tolerance for legislative sausage-making and a love for press conferences.

Together, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President Emil Jones and Gov. Blagojevich have brought state government to a standstill in a stalemate over the tedious chore of putting together a new budget.

It would be one thing if they were members of different political parties or were from opposite geographic poles. But all are Chicago Democrats engaged in a once-in-a-generation hissing match over who wields the most clout in Springfield.

House Speaker Michael Madigan

What he wants in a new budget:

No increases in business taxes or fees

$538.6 million in new spending for schools, but lowered spending elsewhere

Keep the Tinley Park Mental Health Center open, along with Downstate Vandalia prison and St. Charles juvenile detention center

Increase spending for City Colleges

Restore cuts to open space land acquisition program

Restore state tourism cuts

Gov. Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones

What they want in a new budget:

Increase business taxes, cut corporate tax breaks and use of special-purpose state funds

Increase school spending $400 million

Roughly $600 million to cover inflation in Medicaid program and broaden eligibility for FamilyCare and KidCare health insurance programs for the poor

Keep Tinley Park and St. Charles open

Close Vandalia prison and the Pontiac prison

Cut open space land acquisition program

Cut nonessential government services by $373 million

When Democrats seized complete power of state government for the first time since the mid-1970s, hopes of political harmony and a common agenda swept over state government. But 17 months later, backbiting, name-calling and fingerpointing have transformed this Democratic juggernaut into a Yugo up on blocks.

Not only couldn't the three Democratic kingpins pass a state budget by Memorial Day, they now will have to turn to Republicans to get a spending deal approved before July 1. Without an agreement by then, the government could shut down, depriving state workers and welfare recipients of paychecks and leaving Democrats with a giant shiner.

"This is so destructive for Democrats. When Democratic legislators come back to our districts, this is exactly what people are saying on the streets: 'What's going on with the Democrats?' " said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago). "We waited all these years, and look at what's happening to us."

The central conflict is between the governor and Madigan. The state's Democratic Party chairman first attempted to clip Blagojevich in his campaign by suggesting he had committed "indiscretions" during his early political years without ever saying what they were. To follow that up, Madigan put Blagojevich on notice after he'd won, lecturing a governor who once served in the General Assembly that the Legislature is a co-equal branch of government with the executive branch.

Despite those confrontational signals, Madigan accommodated the governor and pushed a succession of his initiatives through the House and into the state's lawbooks last year. But the goodwill has come to a crashing halt.

Publicly, Madigan -- dubbed by one lawmaker as the "Bobby Fischer of Illinois politics" for his chesslike maneuvering -- told the Daily Southtown that he harbors no ill will toward Blagojevich. Merely, he differs with the governor on policy issues, such as the degree to which Blagojevich has tried to borrow the state out of its deep budgetary hole.

But Madigan doesn't respect Blagojevich's leadership credentials, is irritated by the governor's attacks on the Legislature and mugging for television cameras and despises some of the governor's key advisers, most notably his budget chief, John Filan, associates say.

The icy relationship was perhaps damaged irreparably last week when Blagojevich accused Madigan's daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, of shilling for her father by unexpectedly thwarting a $217 million deal to mortgage the Thompson Center -- a revenue linchpin upon which the governor built this year's budget.

"We like the governor a lot," Madigan spokesman Steve Brown insisted Friday, only a day after characterizing Blagojevich's criticism of Lisa Madigan's Thompson Center opinion as symbolic of the "pathetic, simplistic view the governor has of life sometimes."

Blagojevich harbors a deep distrust of the speaker, believing Madigan wants to weaken him politically by cornering him into accepting an income tax increase -- a key campaign pledge the governor has vowed not to violate. Many observers believe the speaker's ultimate goal is to position his daughter for a run at governor, though the attorney general has made no such ambitions known.

After serving briefly under Madigan as a member of the Illinois House, Blagojevich also believes the speaker is having a difficult time coping with no longer being the most powerful Democrat in Springfield, as he was under a two-decade-plus succession of Republican governors.

Asked about that dynamic, the governor coyly responded, "I couldn't possibly comment."

Pressed further about whether he thought a dislike for sharing power with other Democrats was an influence in Madigan's hard-line budget stance, the governor smiled broadly and nodded, cognizant he was being tape-recorded during an interview with the Sun-Times.

Earlier this spring, Blagojevich began preparing for confrontation with Madigan by setting up a special campaign fund from which contributions are doled out to sympathetic lawmakers. So far, the fund has given $62,500 to nine current or future Democratic House members through March. While the speaker's aides politely welcomed that initiative, many inside Madigan's camp viewed the move as meddling in the House Democratic caucus.

Blagojevich has managed to block Madigan on the budget by striking an alliance with Jones. On Sunday, the governor and Senate president will crisscross the South and West sides, attending black church services to encourage attendees to urge their state representatives to turn up the heat against Madigan on the budget.

Jones and Blagojevich are philosophically in tune on the budget. But there also is an undercurrent between the Senate president and speaker. Some suggest that Madigan has not given Jones the respect he deserves, treating him as if he were a "junior partner."

In April, Madigan agitated Jones by embracing proposed restrictions on state borrowing that were pushed by Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson (R-Greenville) and that Jones had bottled up in the Senate. Watson was allowed to testify on the plan at a House hearing Madigan convened, and the two have been closely allied ever since despite their glaringly different political stripes.

Asked about his dealings with Madigan, Jones went so far as to question the speaker's devotion to the Democratic Party's core principles.

"I'm a member of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and I look at our platform. . . . I'm holding true to that platform as it relates to education, health care and the needy of the state of Illinois. He is a good Democrat," Jones said, referring to Madigan, "so I'm quite certain he'll probably see the light and do likewise."

While doings in Springfield typically take a back seat to politics in Washington and City Hall, the GOP and many observers believe the bickering among the three state leaders and the resulting overtime session has reached voters and made Democrats look imbecilic.

"The Democrats are the losers here. They fumbled the ball," said budget expert Charles Wheeler III, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield and former Sun-Times Springfield Bureau chief. "When it's time to point blame, there is enough of it to go around to everybody."


Governor wanted control, now he must prove himself

Pantagraph Editorial, 6/7/04

Gov. Rod Blagojevich may eventually claim victory in his efforts to reorganize the Illinois State Board of Education, but he will give up more than he was seeking.

His victory, if you can call it that, would be getting the power to replace State School Superintendent Robert Schiller and seven of the nine board members on July 1. Without a change, he would have been able to appoint three members immediately to fill vacancies plus another two spots in January when two six-year terms expire.

The change has been approved in the House, but there is a slightly different version in the Senate.

What the governor sought but the House would not give him the power to do was gut the board and create a Department of Education under his control; require schools to join purchasing pools and put school design/construction under his office's control.

Some would call it a defeat for the governor, but we think Blagojevich asked for more than he expected to get, so maybe his only strategy was to put his own people in power as soon as possible. July 1 marks the beginning of the state's fiscal year.

Blagojevich had wanted to wrest control of education from the ISBE, saying it is not directly accountable to the public. The governor said if he and the Legislature are going to be accountable for problems such as inequitable funding and revenue shortfalls, then he needed more control over ISBE's operations.

Schiller, who has publicly criticized the governor's plan and is likely to be replaced immediately if the governor's new appointees are seated -- if the superintendent doesn't resign first -- has insisted that his office is merely following the laws as written by the Legislature and approved by previous governors.

The governor thinks his plan will enable him to guide a reformation not unlike that of the Chicago Public School System after Mayor Richard Daley was handed control of those struggling schools. It will be interesting to see if Blagojevich would reach out to the architect of that reformation under Daley -- Paul Vallas. Vallas lost to Blagojevich in the 2002 Democratic primary election.

The compromise plan would still generate at least $200 million in savings over four years, according to the governor's office, but is far short of the $1 billion the governor said his plan would have saved.

If the Senate approves the plan, we hope the governor makes the most of this opportunity and doesn't squander it with appointees who become rubber stamps for the governor and forget their purpose is to help improve education in Illinois.

The governor is right that his office should have more control over the ISBE if the governor is going to be held accountable for education/school financing problems. Soon, he will probably have the primary control he was seeking. His effectiveness will be judged in two years if he seeks re-election.


Budget jam may help local schools

John Patterson, Daily Herald State Government Editor & George LeClaire, Daily Herald Reporter, 6/8/04

SPRINGFIELD - An ongoing state budget impasse opens the doors for suburban schools to gain greater state assistance, or at least avoid losing the scant dollars they now get.

Having blown their May 31 constitutional deadline to arrive at a balanced budget, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate must now reach out to Republicans to muster the votes to approve a budget deal.

Almost immediately, suburban Republican leaders said their schools must be included in any plan to increase school funding. Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., both Chicago Democrats, backed a plan to increase school funding by $400 million, mostly by increasing the minimum guaranteed level of spending per student statewide to $5,060 - a $250 increase.

But many suburban schools are considered too wealthy to qualify for the general state aid formula and, therefore, would see none, or very little, of that money.

"We want to make sure we have a fair break between upstate and downstate. The foundation level increase is primarily more beneficial to downstate schools," said House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego. "We're all, I think, on the same page that we ought to be fair in how we allocate the money. We want to make sure we split it evenly, or close to evenly."

How much money that involves, or where it comes from, remains uncertain at this point. With their deadline past, lawmakers left the Capitol June 1 and were told to be prepared to be called back on 24 hours' notice should a budget deal be struck. Both the House and Senate are returning June 9, but to vote on other issues.

What Cross and other suburban lawmakers want is more state funding for education programs the state requires schools provide but doesn't fully fund. Transportation and special education programs cost districts millions. Most suburban schools get the bulk of their state tax dollars from state reimbursements for these programs, though that still doesn't cover 100 percent of the cost.

"Considering the state of the economy in Illinois, I'd say suburban schools at the very least would like to see the mandated (programs) fully funded," said Donna Baiocchi, executive director of ED-RED, a suburban education group representing more than 100 districts in Cook, DuPage and Lake counties.

And "fully funded" is a misnomer. For instance, the state's idea of full reimbursement of a special education teacher amounts to $8,000. That was set in 1985 and even then didn't fully cover a special education teacher's pay. The current cost is about $40,000.

Baiocchi supports raising the general state aid formula because the special education schools need it. But she said suburban schools shouldn't be left out of the mix.

"To fund the foundation level at $250 and to ignore the special education (budget) lines is certainly neglecting the needs of most suburban school districts," she said.

The state's complicated formula for funding schools is primarily based on one thing - the value of local property. School districts with high-priced homes and thriving businesses, in theory, can raise most of their money locally and, therefore, don't get much state aid. For example, the tiny Rondout Elementary District 72 based near Lake Forest has more local property wealth than any other school in the state. More than $1.5 million in local property values stands behind each of the 120 students.

In contrast, the East St. Louis district has the lowest amount of property value. Less than $11,000 in local property values backs each of its 9,000 students.

What that means is it is far easier for Rondout to get local dollars to educate students than it is for East St. Louis. A small tax rate raises far more money in Rondout because the property there is worth so much more. East St. Louis simply cannot tax its property and raise the same money.

The state's complex formula for funding schools attempts to recognize this. That's why East St. Louis relies heavily on state tax dollars to educate students whereas the Rondout school district is funded almost exclusively with local dollars.

An increase in the state's guaranteed funding level for students could send added millions to East St. Louis but nothing to Rondout.

"We don't get much in that regard. So when they change that, it doesn't affect us a great deal. Most of our funding is supported by local taxes. It works for us," said Rondout's Superintendent Renee Goier.

East St. Louis and Rondout are the extremes of state finance, but the basis for how they are funded holds true throughout the 888 public school districts in Illinois.

Cross and other suburban lawmakers and education officials said any budget deal needs to be fair to all. The catch is finding the money to do it.


Governor plays hardball

Patrick J. Powers, Belleville News Democrat, 6/8/04

BELLEVILLE - Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Monday promised harsh cuts to education and health care in the metro-east if the Illinois House fails to pass a budget similar to the one he proposed nearly four months ago.

"We've been ready since ... February to work on this budget, but unfortunately ... the House couldn't complete its work," Blagojevich said at Learning Journey preschool in Belleville. "This has nothing to do with personalities. It has everything to do with different priorities and different values."

Illinois lawmakers have until the end of the month to approve a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. If the state legislature cannot pass a budget by then, it cannot write checks to meet its payroll and other expenses.

"It's a big game of chicken to see who blinks first," said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "If we get a budget, everything is forgiven, but if we have a meltdown, the Democrats lose."

State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville, has been spearheading budget negotiations for Blagojevich and said he anticipates an agreement in the next couple of weeks, if not days.

"We've been meeting on a daily basis.... I think that we've made progress," he said. "I believe we're moving forward and we're going to do this before there's a threat of a shutdown and I think we'll succeed."

The Illinois House earlier last month advanced a "no-growth" budget proposal without the governor's requested increases in education and health care spending. Metro-east schools would lose $16 million and 7,100 people here would lose health care without the funding, Blagojevich said.

"We're not going to short-change our kids," Blagojevich said. "We're not going to cut spending in education. We want more investment in education. We're not going to kick anybody off of health care."

The $1 million in additional spending would push the state budget to $54 billion. And according to Blagojevich, the money would come from reducing state agencies' budgets by 2.25 percent, shrinking the size of state government, shuttering some state facilities and closing corporate tax loopholes.

"We're not going to raise the income tax and we're not going to raise the sales tax," Blagojevich said. "There are ways to keep this budget balanced without raising the income tax or sales tax, but it does require saying 'no' to some of the powerful interests in Springfield."

The Illinois Senate passed Blagojevich's plan last month, but the Illinois House has yet to vote on it.

"The key is for (Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan) to sit down and try to come up with something that we all can live with," said state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville. "I think there are people in the House who want to pass this budget, it's just a matter of the Speaker calling (it)."

A representative from Madigan's office couldn't be reached for comment Monday.

Madigan and the two Republican leaders have not spelled out a detailed alternative, but they generally favor keeping spending at the current level and approving fewer of the business taxes and raids on special funds.


Caught Cheating

Phil Weber, Herald-Whig

A recent national survey shows almost half of American teenagers admit to cheating on tests, reports and other school work in the past year, and an informal survey of 10 area high school students and recent graduates shows this region seems to fit the national trend.

Every area teenager asked — from both public and private schools — said academic cheating is relatively common at their school and is accepted by students, especially on day-to-day work.

"I've done it on homework, but it isn't worth risking a zero on a test," said one student who asked not to be identified. "If you are involved in sports or something, you may not have time to do all the homework. You ask to borrow someone's paper before class to copy."

The 2003 Gallup Youth Survey poll of 2,000 teens nationwide taken between January 2003 and March 2004 shows 46 percent of high school students age 13-17 admit to cheating on at least one exam in the past year. Sixty-five percent say cheating is a problem in their schools.

One student, who also asked to remain anonymous, said he was surprised only 46 percent owned up to their cheating. He thought it would have been closer to 60 percent.

"You see it all the time. If it is something they care about, then they'll put in some real effort. Otherwise they don't bother," he said. "Why waste time on something we're never going to use?"

Many teachers nationwide agree that cheating is a growing concern for American high schools. A recent survey of 725 teachers conducted by showed that 58 percent thought cheating was either a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem within their schools.

Quincy High School Interim Principal Rollie Platt and Assistant Principal Tim Kreinberg said they would be "naive" to believe students don't cheat at their school, but both said they have not seen it reach the same proportions as the national survey.

When cheaters are caught at QHS, it usually means at least an automatic zero on the assignment and probably a call to the student's parents. However, in extreme cases or for habitual cheaters, the penalty could be that the student is removed from a class or suspended from school.

"Whenever we find out about those things, we deal with it pretty heavily," Platt said.

Pittsfield High School Principal Lonny Lemon said his school had 10 proven cases of cheating this year, but he said it is unrealistic to believe those were the only incidents out of a 400-member student body in eight daily classes.

"We watch it as closely as we can, but we're probably close to that (46 percent) number," he said.

Some teachers involved in the national survey are seeing an increase in the number of students using camera phones and text messagers to pass information. Most area schools have banned pagers, cellular telephones and text message devices from their classrooms. Only one area student had ever heard of students using a cell phone to "text" answers back and forth during an exam, and that was at an area college.

Schools can sign up for Internet-based services that allow teachers to download questionable papers so they can be compared to thousands of reports to look for plagiarism.

The cheating in area schools seems to be low-tech — crib notes, writing on hands or writing on the bill of a baseball cap seem to be the most common methods.

One local student said he had a classmate who wrote notes on bubble gum wrappers, then re-wrapped the gum in its original package. He declined to say if the student was caught.


Afrocentric curriculum proposed for District 65

Sean D. Hamill, Chicago Tribune, 6/9/04

After decades of struggle to close the achievement gap between white and black students, Evanston school officials are considering a curriculum that would emphasize African literature, history and arts as a way to improve academic performance.

Despite a warning from District 65 Supt. Hardy Murphy that the African-centered approach would be controversial, the school board asked him Monday to research the concept.

"It's going to be debated," Murphy said. "What is not debatable is there are students in our district who we are not reaching."

Hardy said he expected it would take at least a year to examine the matter before he could report to the board.

White pupils in the Evanston district continue to outperform black pupils by wide margins on standardized tests. The differences on the latest 2003 Illinois State Achievement Tests were typical, showing that on 3rd-grade reading tests, 87 percent of white pupils met or exceeded standards compared with 43.4 percent of black children. Similar disparities were seen in every grade and in every subject.

Of the district's 6,300 pupils in kindergarten through 8th grade, 43 percent are black, 42.3 percent white and 10.6 percent Hispanic, according to the 2003 school report card.

Evanston resident Terri Shepard asked the board to consider an African-centered curriculum.

Shepard's proposal has received support from two local groups: the African American Parents for Positive Learning Experience (AAPPLE) and the local branch of the NAACP.

"No one would talk about it before," Shepard said. "So I'm at least encouraged [the district is] going to talk about it."

Shepard and Tressa Randolph, a representative of AAPPLE who attended Monday's meeting, said they envision a curriculum that is "African-centric," rather than "Eurocentric."

"It would address confidence and self worth," said Randolph, who said she is concerned that not enough African history and literature are taught in Evanston.

In other action at Monday's meeting, a teacher resigned after facing disciplinary action when she and two other teachers displayed a skeleton in the teachers lounge to protest federal testing requirements.

Vikki Proctor had fought to keep her social studies and language arts position at King Lab school.

"Although I take this action reluctantly, it is very apparent that District 65, under the current leadership, does not value teachers or students or any dissent on matters of public concern," said Proctor.

On Tuesday, Proctor filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Chicago against the school board and board officials. She is asking the school district for unspecified damages.

Proctor alleges her free-speech rights were violated when she was transferred from King Lab.

District officials could not be reached to comment on the lawsuit.

"I'm sorry to see her leave," board member Hecky Powell said Monday night.


Batavia OK's background checks

Gala M. Pierce, Daily Herald, 6/9/04

Batavia school officials endorsed working with other Kane County administrators to switch to a more comprehensive background check on prospective employees.

Instead of a basic name check, which only checks someone's criminal records within the state of Illinois, the fingerprint criminal background can tap into state and FBI records.

"A fingerprint check is much more comprehensive and complete," said Steve Caliendo, assistant superintendent for personnel at Tuesday's school board meeting. "For that reason, ... Batavia, along with all the other seven districts that have not gone to a fingerprint check, are looking to do that as a group."

With a vote of 4-1, the school board approved moving forward with the switch. Caliendo estimated the electronic fingerprint system will cost Batavia about $40 more per check, from $10 to $50, and about $7,000 more a year, from a budgeted $2,000 to roughly $9,000. It takes 2 minutes to complete and 48 hours for results.

School board member Jayne Resek thought the extra money was worth it.

"Having read about some of the situations that other districts have run into without having any ability to check beyond the state limits with the name check, I'm very supportive of the extra $7,000," she said.

Board member Jeff Glaser, however, opposed the change.

"It just seems to me a violation of a person's privacy," he said. "We have given up so much of our privacy lately, and I don't feel any safer."

Currently, East Aurora and Elgin-based U-46 districts use the technology, Caliendo said. Kaneland also recently adopted the system, and Mooseheart also carries the technology. Officials at the Kane County Regional Office of Education have contemplated becoming a site as well.

The district would perform background checks on substitute teachers, bus drivers, custodians and all support staff - not just teachers, Caliendo said.

East Aurora officials recently made a convincing presentation, Caliendo said. Speaking on behalf of the county's other human resources employees, he said the current system just doesn't cut it.

"We all feel very strongly that it's just not a good enough protection for kids," he said.


Schiller will appoint CEO

Alexa Aguilar, St. Louis Post-Dispatc, 6/10/04

State education Superintendent Robert Schiller will ax the East St. Louis School District's financial oversight panel a few months early, after reaching a deal with the East St. Louis School Board.

The School Board has been eager to see the panel disappear. In exchange for Schiller's dissolution of the panel four months before its legal expiration, the board has agreed to let a Schiller-appointed transition team run the district for the next year.

Schiller attended a last-minute meeting called by the board Wednesday in East St. Louis, where he recommended the plan as a way to prepare the district for autonomy by July 2005.

"We're trying to put a management structure into place that is not currently there," Schiller said.

Schiller said his decision to eliminate the financial oversight panel, which the state appointed in 1994 to keep financial control of the district for 10 years, followed "negotiations" with the School Board's attorneys.

Richard Mark, chairman of the panel, said he didn't see the proposal until Wednesday morning, when he was informed the panel would be dissolved by June 17. He said he had received a phone call informing him that there were ongoing, "secret" meetings among Schiller, state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Fairview Heights, and the School Board's attorneys.

"I was pretty shocked that they are going to do this without ever discussing any of the details with the financial oversight panel," Mark said. "This boils down to some back-door deal that continues the status quo in East St. Louis - a status quo where the adults there play games about who's getting hired instead of worrying about the 75 percent of high school students who didn't meet standards in reading or math."

Schiller said he saw nothing wrong with the notification Mark received.

In exchange for eliminating the panel early, Schiller will appoint an interim chief executive officer who will run the district until July 2005. When the oversight panel is dissolved June 17, the business personnel who run the district's financial affairs also will be out, and the interim CEO must hire an auditor, a deputy superintendent and a chief financial officer. Under the new proposal, a transition team - made up of Schiller and two superintendents from northern and central Illinois - will mediate any disagreements between the new CEO and the School Board.

Schiller said he hopes to appoint the interim CEO in the next two weeks. Superintendent Nate Anderson will leave June 30, and he is using up his vacation days until then. He cited the struggles between the board and the panel as a reason for his resignation.

Mark said he's not optimistic about the next few weeks.

"The financial administrators are done as of June 17," Mark said. "This is a $92 million operation, and we're not even sure who will be running it. With some of those people gone, I don't know how they are going to make payroll."

The relationship between the School Board and the panel has never been harmonious. The state took over financial control of the district in 1994, after students sat for weeks in crumbling classrooms, some without teachers. Some students got no lunch.

As panel chairman, Mark has long been an outspoken critic of the School Board, alleging that it is more interested in handing jobs to friends than educating students. The board, along with East St. Louis' legislators, say the panel interferes too much in matters of local control. The panel and the board have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers as they tangled in court over hiring and spending decisions by the School Board.

Mark called Schiller's last-minute decision to dump the panel "unprofessional" and said the three-member oversight panel has done what the state asked it to do. When the panel was appointed, the district faced a $5 million deficit. Now, it has $20 million in reserves with nine new schools built or in the planning stages.

"We did it as a voluntary thing for nine years," Mark said. "If he doesn't want us to serve anymore, fine. I wipe my hands of it. I want to say, 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.'"

But Mark said he is worried about what will happen to the pending lawsuit against the panel regarding the panel's removal of Lonzo Greenwood as School Board president. The panel says it has evidence that Greenwood and another board member arranged for a $10 million contract with a food service provider without the knowledge of the panel or other board members.

"If Schiller does not pursue legal action against Greenwood, I hope the public questions what is going on over there," Mark said.


School isn't out but fun has begun

Tracy Dell'Angela, Chicago Tribune, 6/10/04

About the time teacher Sue Gouldsberry starts to see the year-end glaze in her 3rd-graders' eyes, she tosses out the textbooks and looks for ways to keep the children engaged.

Goodbye, math homework and spelling lists. Hello, Bubble Day and Field Day and Picnic Day and Chocolate-Tasting Day and Awards Day and Occupation Day.

"Was it academic to spend 2 1/2 hours investigating bubbles? No. But did they learn things? Yes," said Gouldsberry, a 29-year teacher at Brookdale Elementary in Naperville, who had her pupils analyze giant soap bubbles and experiment with bubble gum.

"You lose them a couple days before Memorial Day," she said. "They're worn out. They know what they know ... so you can set them loose a little."

All this year-end fun can seem a little too loosey-goosey to some parents, who scratch their heads at a sea of social events, movies and fluffy field trips--a fallow period that seems to have grown over time from a couple of days into a week or more."This last week of school is an utter joke," said Frank Skorski, a parent at Westview School in Wood Dale. His 1st grader and 3rd grader celebrated the end of school with picnics, a field day and a boat trip in downtown Chicago. "It's just wrong. Now, the teachers are competing to be loved by the kids. I respected my teachers because I learned something."

Many educators argue that it's senseless to try to beat new lessons into the children's heads when they are all bolting for the door. At the tag end of the state-mandated 176-day school year, they say, it's better to leaven the learning with good times.

But some also acknowledge that the fun serves other purposes, allowing staff the time to take care of logistics such as final grades, book inventories and even cleaning up the schoolhouse.

As teacher Mary Ann Hardtke stood on the deck of an Oak Park pool on a recent school morning, she recalled the relentlessness of her 6th-grade teacher, who would keep her pupils after school on the very last day if they didn't turn in their final assignments.

Then, she and her colleagues glanced over at their 5th graders splashing in the water.

"Oh, I don't think THAT would fly anymore," joked her Holmes School colleague, Marilyn Vickers.

The teachers said these activities have become tradition in Oak Park, where students work hard all year and play hard at the end.

Still, Vickers hadn't given up on teaching her 5th graders some new material. She squeezed in one last science lesson before the start of Swim Day, the one she knew could hold the children's attention for an hour at any time of year: "Human Reproduction."

More pressure, some say

The perception that children and teachers hit the wall earlier than ever reflects the pressure at schools these days, some educators contend. Between rising expectations for what the youths should know, and the effort to pack in as much learning as possible before standardized tests are given, they say the children need the break.

"There's still isn't enough time to get everything in ... but you need those pressure relief valves," said Brookdale's Chuck Seidel, who ended his 29-year career as a principal Wednesday with a one-hour school day and a final burst of festivities. "When I started, they weren't doing algebraic equations in 5th grade. Now they are."

Illinois school Supt. Robert Schiller said that academic demands have not curtailed traditional fun, but in some cases, it has pushed the lighter moments to the end of the year, when test preparation is done.

"You hear over and over that there isn't enough time to teach all the things that need to be taught, but the real issue is, has the time been maximized?" Schiller said. "I know it's real hard to teach `Hamlet' to students in the last week of school. But for the purists, we'd love to see instruction take place until the last bell rings."

Year-end bookkeeping

Beyond the burnout, some mundane demands are driving this slowdown.

In most public schools, the teachers end the year about when the students do, which means they have to clear out classrooms and complete report cards days before the final bell rings. Savvy students figure out when the grade books close and scoff at any attempts to complete "real" schoolwork after that.

Nancy Fong of Oak Park recently overheard her 7th-grade daughter urging her 5th-grade son to blow off the last of his social studies homework.

"Forget it. The teachers already turned in their grades," Alizarin Menninga told her brother, Thalo, whose last week featured an ice cream social, a pool outing and a 5th-grade graduation party.

Keith Coleman--watching 10-year-old Marcus play in the Oak Park pool on the first truly sweltering morning of the year--said he doesn't begrudge his son a few blow-off days at the end of the year. He feels Marcus is getting the academics he needs during the year and from summer programs.

"I don't agree with it 100 percent, but teachers need to provide some sort of outlet," Coleman said. "But maybe some sort of field trip would be better than just hanging out at the pool."

In Wilmette District 39, teachers have to strike a balance between fun and frivolity. So, poetry readings and outdoor science experiments with "sludge" are fine. Great America trips are not.

"We try to look at these last few weeks as an opportunity to do some creative projects," said Supt. Max McGee, who played summer Scrooge when he told officials at two schools they couldn't take their students to Great America on a school day.

He also frowns on teachers devoting class time for student cleanup projects.

"They have to be learning something, not just playing around," McGee said.

At Elmwood Elementary in Naperville, 4th graders have been known to cry when they land in Ric Krebs' 5th-grade classroom, in part because of his reputation for heavy homework and strict discipline. And he's not inclined to abandon his no-nonsense routine at the end of the year.

Still, Krebs says even the strictest of teachers has to be flexible to accommodate both pre-summer restlessness and the demands of spring baseball seasons, easing up a little on homework assignments.

There's no final-week frivolity to be found at Notre Dame Elementary, a Catholic school in Clarendon Hills. The children get out a little early on Friday, and the year ends not with a party but a church service, a teacher said.

The only celebration is one held that evening by the parents. Even for the 1st graders, reading homework and new spelling words and timed math tests continue through the last day.

End isn't near for some

While most suburban districts are already out for the year, the summer slowdown hasn't really hit in a big way for public schools in Chicago, where classes won't end for another 10 days.

"Maybe it will hit in another week ... but we're still working at the same pace," said Kathy Smith, whose 1st grader attends the fast-improving South Loop School. "A lot of us are saying, `Let's keep the momentum going.'"


Rhetoric heats up as lawmakers meet again on budget / Courier News

Mixed actions: Lawmakers approve $850 million loan but nix cash for school aid

By Doug Finke, COPLEY NEWS SERVICE, 6/10/04

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers approved a short-term borrowing plan Wednesday to pay backlogged Medicaid bills, but the Senate torpedoed extra money needed to make a full school aid payment in June in a fight over pet projects.

Legislators returned to Springfield on Wednesday for one day to authorize borrowing $850 million for a few weeks to pay outstanding Medicaid bills. By borrowing the money now, the state will get an extra $25 million in federal reimbursements that would not be available after June 30.

Although the borrowing plan got overwhelming support from lawmakers in both parties, Republicans used the bill to engage in a little partisan bashing of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"We are here because of the failure of leadership" by Blagojevich, said Sen. Peter Roskam, R-Wheaton. "Somehow he has managed to mess up a three-man parade."

Roskam and other Republicans said there would have been no need to borrow the money if the current state budget was balanced.

"It seems this budget is out of whack by $2 billion," said Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington. "It's time to admit we made a mistake."

However, Democrats said the GOP simply was grandstanding and trying to blame Blagojevich for financial conditions that aren't his fault.

"The fiscal crisis we find ourselves in is not due to (Blagojevich's) leadership. It is due to previous (Republican) governors," said Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago.

Loan terms need approval

The bill approved Wednesday calls for the state to borrow $850 million. The loan is contingent on Blagojevich, Comptroller Dan Hynes and Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka reaching agreement on the loan terms. The money will be used to pay virtually all the Medicaid bills that are awaiting payment. Some of those bills have been pending for more than 60 days. By acting before June 30, the state will get a 53 percent reimbursement on the payments from the federal government. After June 30, the state would get only a 50 percent reimbursement. The higher reimbursement is worth about $25 million. To help win support from Republican lawmakers, the bill also calls for creation of an eight-member task force to investigate placing more Medicaid recipients into managed-care programs. Only about 7 percent of Illinois Medicaid recipients are now in managed care, the lowest percentage of any of the surrounding states. "It's a huge savings if we can get a bigger percentage of the population under managed care," said Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville.

Democrats traditionally have resisted forcing Medicaid recipients into managed-care programs.

Spat sinks cash for schools

Although the borrowing plan was approved, a supplemental spending bill went down to defeat in the Senate in a fight over lawmakers' pet projects. Among other things, the bill would have given more money to the Illinois State Board of Education so that a 24th school aid payment could be made in June without any reductions.

The bill needed 36 votes to pass the Senate, but it received only 31. Many Republicans voted against the bill after $26 million was removed that would have been used to build a trap-shooting complex in Sparta. Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, represents Sparta.

Luechtefeld said the project needs to be approved before June 30 to bring the Amateur Trapshooting Association to Illinois. The association wants a guarantee that Illinois will build the facility before making a commitment to come here.

"We look at this as a tremendous economic development opportunity for southern Illinois," said Luechtefeld, noting that Blagojevich pledged money for the project.

However, Democrats said that the Republicans were hypocrites. Only a week ago, they complained, Republicans blasted a budget proposed by Jones as loaded with pork for Chicago.

"If we do something for the (Chicago) lakefront, it is pork," said Sen. James DeLeo, D-Chicago. "When we do something downstate, it's economic development."

Despite the vote, the bill is not dead. Lawmakers are expected to return to Springfield again next week to deal with the supplemental spending plan.




Middle school goes the way of junior high

Cities: Many districts, including Baltimore, are discarding the 1970s invention and turning to K-8 facilities

Education Beat: Mike Bowler, Baltimore Sun, June 2, 2004

The middle school replaced the junior high about three decades ago and seemed to be one idea that would never go away. But in American cities, it's going the way of the dodo bird.

A number of urban districts across the country are doing away with middle schools, replacing them with schools serving kids in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Baltimore has been making the switch for the better part of a decade, and though there are still middle schools in the city serving pupils in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, 30 city schools now operate K-8 programs, and the number is growing.

Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and New Orleans are following suit, according to the National School Boards Association.

Thirty years ago, districts around the country were busy replacing junior highs with middle schools. The thinking was that children mature faster and are intellectually and emotionally better suited for intermediate schooling after the fifth grade. And lowering the middle school age by a year - junior highs enrolled kids in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades - had the effect of returning the ninth grade to the senior high school, where most experts felt it belonged.

But now such leaders as Philadelphia schools Superintendent Paul Vallas are shifting most middle-grade pupils to K-8 schools. Not to do so "is the equivalent of educational malpractice," Vallas told the Associated Press in April, "since you can't argue with the facts, and the facts are that large, high-poverty middle schools simply do not work in an urban environment."

In Baltimore, the K-8 movement has been led by parents eager for their children to remain in neighborhood schools after the elementary grades. The thinking is that these children can make the transition to high school more easily in the familiar and less stressful atmosphere of a school that knows them and their families.

Whether the K-8 bandwagon will chug its way to the suburbs remains to be seen. But there is a model at the ready: Roman Catholic schools never left the wagon. Those parish schools have been on the K-8 schedule as long as anyone remembers.


If it works in Chicago . . .

As in the Windy City, New York’s public schools will hold back third-graders who fail standardized tests

BY DEBORAH HIRSCH, Newsday, June 3, 2004

CHICAGO -- Shane Pitner, 13, plays sports, does competitive Irish dancing and says he's got plenty of friends in his class at Goudy Elementary School. On top of all this, he gets pretty good grades. That alone is a huge improvement from last year, the first time Pitner entered sixth grade -- and failed.

Repeating the grade this year has given him extra time to learn the material, said his grandmother, Mickey Smith, who teaches at Goudy. "He just wasn't ready," she said.

"I always fooled around a little," Pitner said, "and on the Iowa [Test of Basic Skills] test I got bored with it, so I just put down anything, except for the math."

In Chicago, all third-, sixth- and eighth-graders must pass standardized tests to move to the next grade. Pitner said it was hard to watch his friends move up without him, but none of this year's classmates care that he's older. "They should hold people back," he said. "... You could focus more on your stuff, and you could make new friends."

The policy of holding back kids who don't pass the tests is considered one of the nation's toughest. It was started about seven years ago to prevent "social promotion" -- students being moved up despite failing.

New York City's policy

In April, the New York City schools approved a similar tough policy to hold back third- graders who fail tests in reading and math. Students who don't pass can appeal, and teachers and parents will review their academic records. If the teacher decides the third-grader really needs to repeat the grade, the student can go to summer school, then try to pass the test again in August.

To help struggling third-graders, New York will spend $90 million for teacher training, individual or afterschool tutoring and reading or math workshops during school breaks. Even if all of these programs aren't offered at every school, students will have access to them in their region, according to the state's education department.

In Chicago, to help kids pass the test, the public schools expanded after-school programs and other tutoring, said spokeswoman Jeanie Chung. "Summer school is a big factor," she said. "It all works together."

Starting in 2001, Chicago students were required to read two hours a day in school. Classroom libraries were created in all elementary schools; reading specialists worked with teachers in the lowest-performing ones.

Since the program started, students' test scores have improved significantly. More students are attending school and graduating. Fewer are dropping out.

In 1998, less than 40 percent of all third- through eighth-graders in Chicago's 600 public schools were at or above national norms in reading and math. By 2003, rates rose to 41 percent in reading and 48 percent in math. The high school dropout rate fell from about 16 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2003.

"It's been successful to the point that it's helped the entire student body because of accountability," said Goudy's principal Patrick Durkin. "The students realize there's no tolerance, there's no passing unless you pass the test."

Goudy students once had among the lowest test scores in Chicago, with only 14 percent reading at or above the national average and only about 20 percent at that level in math. Now, scores have risen to 54 percent in reading and 61 percent in math.

Researchers say the promotion policy is just one reason for higher scores. Stronger test preparation and increased spending are among others.

But, unlike Shane Pitner, not everybody has as positive an experience the second time around. Repeating a grade can be a huge blow to a student's self-esteem. Some never get back on track.

Short-term gains

While test scores have gone up overall, studies criticize Chicago's policy for only providing short-term improvements. Poorly performing students who were held back did better at first but then fell behind again two or three years later. Studies also show students forced to repeat eighth grade had a higher dropout rate.

Earlier this year, Chicago stopped using math scores to decide promotion. Reading is "our foundation skill," Chung said. "... We want to make sure that kids are able to do that before we worry about anything else." Now, students also can't be forced to repeat the same grade twice or more than two grades between kindergarten and eighth grade.

The new standards have created more pressure on students, said Rachel Carson Middle School principal Kathleen Mayer. Eighth-grader Jaime Mier, 14, agrees.

He said he and his classmates spent at least half a month preparing for the testing week that determines if they graduate middle school, entering ninth grade.

But since teachers grill students on material that will be tested, those who succeed aren't necessarily learning, said Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

"The test becomes school and pushes out all other kinds of learning," he said. "In many cases, it turns kids off to learning because there is no excitement, there's no discovery, there's just test preparation and testing, memorization and repetition. It numbs the mind."

In New York, the new policy uses both math and reading scores to determine whether children should move up to the next grade and requires that personalized learning plans are created for those who are held back.


School Pushes Reading, Writing, Reform

Sciences Shelved in Effort to Boost Students to 'No Child' Standards

By Linda Perlstein, Washington Post Staff Writer, May 31, 2004

Here is 9-year-old Zulma Berrios's take on the school day: "In the morning we read. Then we go to Mrs. Witthaus and read. Then after lunch we read. Then we read some more."

Zulma has left out math, recess and the daily hour of such offerings as art and PE. But otherwise, her summary is accurate.

In Katherine Segal's third-grade class at Highland Elementary School in Wheaton, much of the science and social studies curricula has been glossed over, or skipped entirely, because Zulma and other students must be taught -- soon -- to read better.

Those kinds of tradeoffs are being made across the nation, primarily at public schools such as Highland that have low test scores and large numbers of poor children. In recent years -- particularly since the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 -- many schools have shifted to a fervent focus on reading, writing and math, bringing in program after program in search of what might help struggling students.

A look inside one school shows how life has changed in the new era of educational accountability. Highland students encounter a constant series of assessments. The school might lose a popular bilingual program because it does not meet the terms of a federal grant. And if test scores fail to rise, Highland faces strict sanctions, including the possibility of a state takeover in 2006.

The daily hour once devoted to science and social studies has been replaced by writing for second- and third-graders. Reading has been expanded to 90 minutes a day for all the school's 770 students. Students who began the year behind their grade level in reading might get three hours a day.

"Once they learn the fundamentals of reading, writing and math, they can pick up science and social studies on the double-quick," said Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County schools. "You're not going to be a scientist if you can't read."

Yet teachers worry that two strata of schools are being created, one in which students gain broad knowledge and the groundwork for becoming scientists, and another in which children will, in some ways, be left behind. Scott Steffan, the Highland staff member in charge of teachers' professional growth, has young children who will soon be educated seven miles away, in a less impoverished part of the county. "When my kids go to school," he said, "they're going to get a totally different education."

President Bush has pressed hard for education reform because, he has said, far too many children leave school unequipped to succeed and "there must be consequences for schools that won't teach and won't change."

Highland teaches, and Highland changes. And regardless of what turns up on state exam results this summer, the school is awash in consequences.

The Mandate for Reading

Class with Ms. Segal, a fifth-year teacher, begins each morning with a county-mandated 90 minutes of reading.

For 50 minutes, Tracey Witthaus pulls out a small group of third-graders -- including Zulma -- for Soar to Success, an intensive reading-comprehension program used at many county schools. Instead of studying school desegregation and the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Zulma's group finishes a book about a grasshopper storm and practices reading strategies: Predict, summarize, question, clarify.

"Clarify," said Zulma, who began the year reading at the late first-grade level. "When I come to a word I don't know, I look for chunks I do. Reminded. Re-mine-ded."

"Clarify," said Zulma's classmate Erick Diaz, 9, who began the year reading at a second-grade level. "When I come to a word I don't know, I look for chunks I do. Hailstones. Hail-stone-s."

Erick's mother, Ana, is pleased with his progress. But she said she had no idea the class did so little science, in which she thinks Erick would excel. And she had no idea that the reading interventions would take him out of class so much.

The Prince George's County elementary school that Zulma left two years ago gave no indication that her reading was subpar, her mother said. To Zinia Berrios, it's more important that Zulma is reading well than learning science or social studies -- there's time for that later.

The school year is nearly over, and none of Segal's third-graders has compared the climates of Mexico and Washington. They've picked up facts on countries' geographic characteristics and natural resources through books they read, but they studied neither concept in depth. They haven't studied sound dynamics, nor Asia's past, nor many other elements of the county's third-grade curricula for science and social studies.

Segal did lead her 27 students on a cursory swing through plant development; they grew plants. They spent one day taking fingerprints -- their only other science experiment -- but never explored the rest of the crime lab unit, which is designed to teach over several weeks the concepts of patterns, evidence and inference.

In 2008, the No Child Left Behind Act adds science to the reading and math tests that states must give. School system administrators have said science can be woven into reading lessons or taught to groups of students who already read well.

Highland teachers have said that it's unfeasible given the pressures the staff faces and that it's not the message they're hearing. "The word is out that they have to focus on reading only. And math," said Leslie Zimmerman, Highland's coordinator of the gifted and talented program.

Segal weaves in what she can; her students, the ones not out of the room in reading intervention, spent a good deal of May researching Asia. It's not that the climate at Highland is entirely rigid. Students perform, color, collaborate.

Zulma clearly enjoys the small reading groups, and she enjoys improving. When she isn't chosen to read, she loses her usually imperial air and sinks her head into her arms. Zinia Barrios said she now sees her daughter pick up a book to read, just for fun.

After lunch, recess and math, most of Segal's students work on writing while others, including Erick and Zulma, read lists of words in unison with Mrs. Witthaus in a program called Horizons. Rosie Ramirez, Highland's longtime principal, said she hates seeing teachers pulled from other duties and using a Horizons script that tells them even when to say, "Good job."

But for students behind in reading, Ramirez said, "what's happening at that time will probably be more effective than what's happening in the classroom."

For all the interventions and extra resources that Highland receives -- from the federal government and the county -- because of its poverty rate, the school's scores on standardized reading tests have been consistently below average. Students have scored between the 40th and 50th national percentile in reading, below many county schools with similar demographics that have improved their scores in recent years.

Most Highland students are poor and Hispanic; about 30 percent of them scored proficient last year on Maryland's reading test. Three in 10 have limited English skills; of those students, 9 percent scored proficient.

Bush has said every student should read at grade level by the end of third grade.

"Anyone who came to this school and sat down for a while would say that's a very high expectation," Segal said.

Testing for Skills

"This afternoon," Segal tells her fidgety students, "we're going to be reading a story from the Images magazine and doing some multiple-choice questions and short answers."

The new wave of intensive reading instruction relies on keeping tabs on students' skills. Three times a year, Highland's third-graders take the Images reading test, one of the many measures of their abilities. Erick and Zulma's reading also is assessed three times in Horizons. About 14 times, it's assessed in Soar for Success. Three times, the whole class gets another, thorough in-house reading evaluation.

And over two days in the spring, every third-grader takes the annual Maryland School Assessment in reading -- the exam by which the school's progress is judged under No Child Left Behind.

When the Images test starts, Erick is preoccupied with having just been called "bighead" by a classmate. He turns around and reads the bulletin board. He yawns.

Nearby, Zulma is stumped. The story packs a lot of information into 12 paragraphs: the origins of baseball, the evolution of the mitt, the coeducation of Little League. Zulma knows soccer and basketball, but not baseball.

Most towns have some kind of organized leagues like Little League. In which sentence does the word organized mean the same thing as in the sentence above?

A. The desks were organized in rows.

B. The teacher has her files organized in her desk drawer.

C. The musicians played in organized bands for the concert.

D. He organized his collection of baseball cards.

This doesn't make sense to Zulma. She knows "organized," but can't distinguish any difference in its meaning among the sentences.

Segal has tried to prepare her students for those types of questions and uses the testing language throughout the year. She has taught them multiple-choice skills and how to write inside tiny answer boxes. But she wonders why a test question can't just say, "What did you learn?" instead of, "Explain how your knowledge of baseball has remained the same or changed."

When she grades her students' answers, Segal is not surprised that they range from incomprehensible to irrelevant to, rarely, acceptable. "If it was one question, it would be okay," Segal said. "But they're overwhelmed with what they have to do at one time."

County teachers frequently receive printouts showing in what areas the class is lacking. For some assessments, teachers listen to each student read for 30 minutes, creating hours that the class gets no instruction.

The scrutiny is designed to make sure nobody's deficiencies go unnoticed. One of the most revolutionary aspects of No Child Left Behind is the requirement that states not only give students yearly exams, but also that they break down results by student population, such as Hispanic, or special education. If any group misses the target, the whole school does.

Each year that a school falls short, it experiences a new set of services and sanctions. Already, Highland and 44 other schools in the Washington area must pay for any child whose family requests a transfer to a better-scoring school and for any low-income student to be tutored.

If Highland finds out next month that its scores on the Maryland School Assessments have fallen short again -- short of a target that gets higher every year, as the federal law demands -- the school could be subject to a new curriculum, an extended school year or less autonomy. And in 2006, Highland could be taken over by the state, and the staff could be replaced.

Meanwhile, staff members said they aren't sure what they might be doing wrong.

The U.S. Department of Education Web site states, "Annual testing provides teachers with a great deal of information." But when the 2003 Maryland scores arrived at Highland in August, the only information was the percentage, in each group, of students who were proficient. Not enough poor, Hispanic and limited-English students made it. The data weren't broken down into "vocabulary" or "comprehension" -- just "reading."

"What does this tell me about what we could do better?" Highland reading specialist Gloria Gonzalez asked. "You're shooting in the dark."

A few weeks ago, Highland received a letter from Weast saying that the same set of test results merited the school a $4,000 reward for progress.

A Community Mobilized

On May 12, President Bush appeared in Bethesda to promote the $5 billion Reading First federal grant program as a way to provide curricula that the administration has deemed scientifically proven to work. Five miles away, the Highland school community scrambled to deflect Reading First.

After receiving a Reading First grant, Maryland chose nine counties for the program, and Montgomery County chose four of its poorest, lowest-scoring schools. Next year, each must devote its 90-minute reading block and hour of intervention solely to a curriculum called Nation's Choice.

Every school must deliver the instruction the same way, in English only. So Highland has been told that it can't use, among other initiatives, the dual-language program that many parents and staff consider the school's jewel. Highland's dual-language teachers feel so strongly they have said they'll leave if it is cut. They said the dual-language kids score better in math than the rest of the school and finish second grade at a higher reading level.

"If that's true," said county Deputy Superintendent Gregory Thornton, "it certainly hasn't helped the aggregate [test scores] of the school."

Teachers try to discern where the decision is originating so they can press their case. Parents begin meeting, too. Principal Ramirez has never seen anything mobilize the community like this.

In the school library one evening, 40 parents, most of them Spanish-speaking, devise a plan. They'll circulate petitions. They'll talk with TeleFutura, a Spanish-language cable network. They'll show up at the Board of Education. They'll fill out transfer forms as a statement -- not that they want to move their children out of Highland -- and they'll write a letter.

One mother raises her hand. "Who should the letter be addressed to?"

There is silence.


New group attacks education reform law  

By Kimberly Miller, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, June 3, 2004

Florida's public school superintendents failed in their underground revolt against the president's No Child Left Behind Act earlier this year, but a new lobbying group using Florida's teachers as spokesmen took up arms Wednesday against the sweeping education reform law -- just months away from the November election.

The group, Citizens for Quality Education, debuted nationwide television ads criticizing the 1,100-page law passed in 2002 that requires all public school students to be performing on grade level by 2014 regardless of race, disability, or newness to the country.

Schools that consistently miss goals set by each state must provide transportation to better-rated public schools, pay for tutoring, and ultimately could face state takeover.

The ads are being aired in Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Nevada, with an emphasis on the Sunshine State, where the group says there is a disparity between Gov. Jeb Bush's education reform plan and President Bush's.

Last year 84 percent of Florida's schools failed to meet standards under the federal law, even as the Florida Department of Education was touting that more schools than ever -- 48 percent -- had earned A grades under Gov. Bush's "A-Plus" education plan.

"There is such a conflict between these two assessments," said Damien Filer, a spokesman for Citizens for Quality Education. "Lots of folks are very proud they are an A school, and then they are told they are a failing school by the federal government."

Filer would not say how much the 30-second ads cost the newly formed group, which is supported by the National Education Association and the Florida Education Association.

Florida officials have maintained that the two plans work in tandem, with Florida's system measuring a school's overall performance and learning gains, while the federal program pinpoints specific areas that need improvement.

"These groups should be applauding the education achievements and great strides Florida has made instead of criticizing high standards and accountability," said MacKay Jimeson, spokesman for the Florida Department of Education.

Florida education officials debuted a new school report card Wednesday they hope will help parents understand how their child can attend an A school, but that doesn't make standards under No Child Left Behind. The report card will be available after school grades are issued June 15.

Because each state was able to create its own standards in meeting the federal law, there is no way to compare one state with another, and some states set the bar lower.

Educators and politicians in several states, including Arizona and Utah, have publicly protested the federal law. Wisconsin's attorney general wrote this month that she felt states had a solid legal case against the federal government for not financing the law adequately. This year the Florida Association of District School Superintendents urged Florida education officials to reform parts of the state's plan to make it more equal with other states.

The state is giving school districts some leeway in how it offers choice to students in schools not making standards under the federal law. To reduce transportation costs, school districts may use the choice options already offered, such as charter schools, the Florida Virtual School, or controlled school choice.

The change is a boon to St. Lucie County, which allows parents to choose their own school each year through its controlled school choice plan.

But the new rule came too late for Palm Beach County, which created its choice plan in March and has 2,500 students who intend to transfer if their school isn't meeting standards.

"In a district this large you just can't wait until summer to get things rolling," said Kay Scott, who oversees No Child Left Behind for Palm Beach County.


'No Child' act should be fully funded

 Gary L. Allen, Guest columnist, Cincinnati Enquirer

Teachers, principals, parents, and others who work with Ohio's schoolchildren and who read Rep. John Boehner's, R-West Chester, guest column "Education act far from unfunded mandate" (May 4), might think they live and work in a parallel universe. That's because Boehner's representation of school funding and conditions in Ohio's schools are far from reality for educators and students.

Unfortunately, Boehner continues the false claim that the state has more than enough money to pay for the rigid demands of the so-called "No Child Left Behind" education law. This federal law requires states and school districts to develop and administer standardized tests in reading and math and punishes schools that don't show "adequate yearly progress" on their test scores.

But anyone who has been in Ohio's public schools lately knows the money just isn't there to maintain what we presently offer - let alone implement new federal mandates. Ohio is close to the bottom in the share of school funding the state provides, and the current budget crisis isn't helping.

Voters in more than half of the local school districts with levies on the recent ballot voted down additional property tax hikes to make up the difference. This state and local funding crunch has already forced schools across the state to lay off teachers, trim time for instruction and professional development, and cut back on courses in areas such as arts, music, social studies, and foreign languages. Estimates indicate at least 3,000 school positions will be lost to the current school funding crisis and that is a travesty for quality education.

Ohio's voters agree that school funding is inadequate. The Ohio Education Association recently commissioned a voter survey of Ohio citizens and the results show that 73 percent of voters agree with the four Supreme Court rulings that the funding system for Ohio public schools is unconstitutional and 72 percent believe that the state legislature is paying too little attention to public education.

The pressure from "No Child Left Behind" is making Ohio's acute school funding crisis worse. The law is an unfunded federal mandate that costs Ohio's taxpayers at least $1 billion per year.

If this money were going to things children really need - smaller classes, quality teachers and staff, early childhood intervention, up-to-date materials and technology - it might be worth the sacrifice. But the so-called "No Child Left Behind" federal mandate actually diverts existing state and local funds from classrooms to pay for more bureaucracy, paperwork, and standardized testing. And in Ohio, those funds are far too scarce as it is.

This federally-mandated law also uses a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating schools and students. Educators know that children learn at different rates and in different ways, but rather than helping each child receive the individualized attention he or she needs, the law relies too much on standardized tests to measure annual progress in student learning. According to a recent poll by the National PTA, eight out of 10 parents oppose using testing as the only factor to measure student progress, thus rejecting this one-size-fits-all approach.

Ohio's educators are working hard to achieve the goals of the federal "No Child Left Behind" - high standards and expectations for all of our children, regardless of their background or abilities. But especially during a time of severe budget crisis, the federal government shouldn't be telling us what we have to do when it is not providing the resources needed to comply with the law.

Accountability is a two-way street that must be shared not just by schools, students and those who work in education, but also by policymakers and legislators. While many understood that President Bush had promised to support full funding for "No Child Left Behind" programs, his budget requests and the actual funding approved by Congress have fallen far short of the promised amounts.

That's why state Sen. Greg DiDonato, D-New Philadelphia, has called on the president and Congress to fully fund the federal mandates of "No Child Left Behind." Legislators in more than 20 other states are taking similar action to protest the unfunded and unworkable mandate.

Clearly, the president and Congress are not keeping their promises to children, to parents, to their communities and public education. It's time for them to step up to the plate by fixing and funding NCLB so that our children get the resources and attention they need to learn and become fully participating and productive citizens.

Gary L. Allen is the president of the Ohio Education Association


Missouri ranks 44th, Illinois 6th in teacher pay

Carolyn Bower, Post-Dispatch

Average teacher salaries in Missouri rank among the lowest in the United States, while those in Illinois rank near the top, according to an annual report by the National Education Association.

A spokesman for Missouri's teachers call the state's ranking - 44th - disappointing; a local superintendent went further, saying it was embarrassing. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Illinois teachers sounded almost as pessimistic, noting that the ranking does not reveal the wide gap in salaries between wealthy and poor districts.

The Missouri average teacher salary for the 2002-03 school year was $37,655, about 82 percent of the national average teacher salary, the report said. The Illinois average teacher salary was $51,475, placing that state sixth in the nation.

"To have a quality public education system, we have to be able to attract and retain the best teachers," said Greg Jung, president of the Missouri National Education Association. "A ranking of 44th in the nation is really disappointing. This indicates that public education is not the priority that the people of this state want it to be."

Salary averages do not tell the whole story, education leaders said. Gaps, sometimes large ones, exist in teacher pay district to district in both Missouri and Illinois.

For example, in Missouri, average teacher salaries ranged as high as $56,786 in Clayton to as low as $25,213 in Silex and $24,461 in Strain-Japan.

Similar disparities exist in Illinois, where average teacher salaries vary widely even in the same county. For instance, teacher salaries average $63,390 at Belleville high schools, and $35,102 in Smithton and $25,980 in East St. Louis.

Teacher salaries vary partly because of differences in cost of living. Salaries also vary because some local districts are able to come up with more tax revenue than others.

Charles McBarron, director of communications for the Illinois Education Association, said: "It would be easy to look at the Illinois salary average and think things are not so bad here. In fact, averages do not speak to the incredible disparity between school districts in terms of resources available to educate children, including compensation for staff."

Typically, states take steps to overcome the disparities between rich and poor districts by providing funding from their treasuries. But both Illinois and Missouri rank near the bottom in the percentage of money provided to school districts.

The NEA report shows that in Illinois, 32 percent of revenue for public schools came from the state in 2002-03. In Missouri, the proportion is 35.5 percent. That year Missouri ranked 48 and Illinois 49 in state funding for public education.

That stood in contrast to Hawaii, where 89.2 percent of the revenue for public schools came from the state. In Minnesota, 74.6 percent of the money for public education came from the state. In New Mexico, the figure was 72.3 percent. In North Carolina, 72 percent.

McBarron and Jung say schools here are too dependent on local property taxes.

"It's all about tax base and geography," McBarron said. "Where you live in Illinois has a great deal to do with the quality of education."

McBarron said the Illinois Education Association had joined A+ Illinois, a coalition of groups working to improve equity in the financing of public schools.

In Missouri, the state's NEA has joined a group that went to court earlier this year to challenge Missouri's system for distributing money to public schools.

Despite $140 million in increases for schools approved by legislators, Missouri's funding system remains about $690 million short of what some funding experts say is needed. This spring Missouri voters approved 80 percent of bond and tax issues for schools.

"Until state legislators grapple with funding gaps and come up with a better solution, we will continue to see the gaps widen," Jung said.

Hazelwood school Superintendent Chris Wright said that when it came time to determine teacher salary increases, she looked at what other school districts in the region pay their teachers. She said it was important when much is expected of teachers to offer competitive salaries and to reward them for what they do.

Wright called Missouri's 44th ranking embarrassing.

"If we as a state want to offer quality of life and an environment for children second to none, we need to step up to the plate with salaries," she said. "Obviously that will require additional state money."

In Hazelwood, salaries and benefits make up about 86 percent of district spending, a slightly higher percentage than some other larger districts, where salaries and benefits make up roughly 80 percent of district spending budgets.

The NEA surveys the states for base pay for teachers. However, the data Illinois submitted may include extra-duty pay because school districts report total salary as the amount reported to the teacher retirement system. Missouri state education officials discovered last week that they had submitted data for some time that included extra duty pay. That means that instead of ranking around 35 in the nation several years ago, Missouri should have ranked around 44.

Jim Morris, a spokesman for Missouri's education department, said, "We've been worse off than we thought for a long time."

In the NEA report, states with the highest average teacher salaries included California at $56,283, Connecticut at $55,367 and New Jersey at $54,158. States with the lowest average teacher salaries included South Dakota at $32,416, North Dakota at $33,869 and Mississippi at $34,555.

Most states near Missouri rank higher in average teacher salaries - states including Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

From 1992-93 to 2002-03, the percentage increase in average salaries of public school teachers in constant dollars (adjusted for inflation) was 4.4 percent for Illinois and 0.4 percent for Missouri.


Reading school district, state in court over No Child Left Behind Act

Joann Loviglio, Associated Press, 6/8/04

PHILADELPHIA - The state is failing the children in its fifth-largest school district, which has a large number of children who live in poverty and understand little English, by holding them to the same academic standards as their counterparts in wealthier districts, an attorney for the Reading School District argued Monday.

"It's ludicrous to give our Spanish-speaking kids a test in English - a test they cannot understand - and then say that they they've failed it," attorney Richard L. Guida argued before a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel. "We're failing them ... It's not fair to the kids and it's not fair to the school district."

The Reading School District sued the state Department of Education in December, objecting to the state's classifying 13 of its 19 schools as failing to meet academic standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Education Department attorney Ann G. St. Ledger told the judges that the state's hands are somewhat tied because it must act within the guidelines outlined by the federal legislation. She also argued that the state has not had enough time to develop Spanish-language assessment tests but that it plans to do so.

The school district wants to prevent the state from imposing any sanctions until the department provides assessment tests in Spanish and until the district receives financial assistance that "fully funds" the cost of complying with the law.

Some of the 13 schools were placed on a school-improvement list, meaning they had failed to make "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years, while others were placed on a warning list for failing to meet the academic goals for the first time.

The school district also argues that the state Department of Education was providing no financial assistance to help them comply with requirements. Reading officials say 64 percent of the district's 16,000 students are Hispanic and 15 percent have limited English proficiency.

In Pennsylvania - where results are measured through the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests administered in grades five, eight and 11 - officials have established that schools should start with at least 45 percent of students proficient in reading and 35 percent proficient in math.

"My concern is that this act doesn't deal with what it's supposed to correct," President Judge James Gardner Colins said.

Reading, the fifth-largest of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts, is the first to file a lawsuit contesting its schools' classifications under the act, which was signed by President Bush in 2002. It was unknown when the judges would issue a ruling.


Census: Spending Up for Public Schools

Genaro C. Armas, Associated Press/Miami Herald, 6/9/04

WASHINGTON - Debt for the nation's school districts rose 12 percent to $226 billion in the 2001-02 school year, according to Census Bureau data released Tuesday.

The increase came when communities - many still paying off huge debts from the school construction boom of the 1990s - encountered mounting budget woes as the U.S. economy worsened.

In turn, schools struggled to meet the sobering challenges of hiring more teachers, reducing class sizes, fixing older facilities and meeting stricter educational quality guidelines, some advocacy groups say.

The Census Bureau figures, although the latest available, are two years old, and therefore don't account for the bulk of costs associated with the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping education reforms pushed by President Bush and signed into law in 2002.

"You've got enormous costs on the horizon for most school districts," said Daniel Kaufman, spokesman for the National Education Association.

Collectively, spending for public elementary and secondary school systems, rose about 6 percent to $435 billion.

Districts spent just over $7,700 per pupil, not accounting for costs related to construction or capital needs. That's up from $7,284 the previous year.

There were wide variations among the states, ranging from the over $10,000 spent per pupil in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia; to five states that spent less than $6,000 per student - Utah, Mississippi, Arizona, Idaho and Tennessee.

School enrollment in 2002 was just under 47.2 million nationally, down slightly from 2001, although it was impossible to tell if that was a true enrollment decline because of a change in the way the Census Bureau compiled the data.

The report comes as political debate rages over whether federal dollars should foot for more of the expense of federally pushed initiatives. A recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, said states were paying $10 billion for improvements in special education and $9.6 billion for No Child Left Behind.

Most funding for school systems - about 93 percent - comes from state and local tax dollars.

Edward Kealy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, said the federal government was shortchanging states and localities. Many communities have made up for shortfalls by increasing classroom sizes or raising local tax dollars, he said.

Opponents point to a study by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress' investigative arm, that found that the No Child Left Behind Law and the special education initiatives are voluntary programs, and technically aren't government mandates.






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