ISBE Banner
State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – April 15 – 22, 2005

TOP OF PAGE

STATE
State official: Merging should be local choice / Quad Cities Times
And now for a really weighty issue: State goes after hefty book bags / Chicago Tribune
From oui to wheeee for Hononegah teacher / Rockford Register-Star
Schools scrambling to rein in senior prank season / Chicago Sun-Times
Senate version of HB 750 protects new school funds / Pantagraph
School aid reform, not mere taxes, needed / Decatur Herald & Review
Education plans tread water for now / Daily Southtown
Use of obscure school tax sparks 4 Downstate suits / Chicago Tribune

Budget ‘ignores’ suburban schools / Daily Herald
Convicted sex abuser is suing local school / Daily Herald
Meet the press / Decatur Herald & Review
Phone youth: More kids going wireless / Northwest Herald
Suburbs should not receive even less / Daily Herald
Graduation rules advance, but not gambling plan / Daily Southtown

NATIONAL
Defying No Child law could cost Utah / Salt Lake Tribune
Schools Trying to Relieve Testing Stress / Newsday
New Orleans' school system is a 'train wreck' / Daily Southtown
Bush is failing our school systems / The Vanguard (
Univ. of South Alabama)
Schools are states' domain / Salt Lake Tribune
States hit back on school reform law / Christian Science Monitor
Teachers union, school districts sue over No Child Left Behind / Associated Press
Mixup kept district from getting mental health funds / Chicago Sun-Times
Gov. Seeks More Charter Schools as the Key to Improving Education /
Los Angeles Times

TOP OF PAGE

STATE

State official: Merging should be local choice
J.C. Taylor, Quad Cities Times

JOY,
Ill. — The Illinois state superintendent does not believe small school districts should be forced to consolidate.

Randy Dunn believes that issue always should be left up to the local voters. He knows the plight of small schools firsthand, being a 1976 graduate of
Westmer High School in Mercer County.

“We’ve had various studies over the years that have said various things,” Dunn said. “We’ve been talking about this school size issue in
Illinois for right at 20 years now.”

Dunn was serving as chairman of the Department of education Administration and Higher education at Southern Illinois University before becoming the interim state school superintendent. He was appointed state school superintendent by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in September.

He was the guest speaker this month at a retirement ceremony at
Westmer Secondary School in Joy.

He understands consolidation is a hot button topic.

“It has to be a local decision,” Dunn said. “You cannot mandate, you cannot force this type of change on a community from
Springfield. It never works.”

He realizes consolidation is becoming an option for schools in the area, but he reminds people that it is up to the individual communities to choose to proceed in that direction.

“What I call on communities to do with small high schools is to really be careful to think our we able to offer that comprehensive program to allow our kids to go to Community College or into an apprenticeship program or if they want to go to Harvard or Yale,” Dunn said.

TOP OF PAGE

And now for a really weighty issue: State goes after hefty book bags
Erika Slife and
Tracy Dell'Angela, Chicago Tribune. Staff reporters Jodi Cohen and Grace Aduroja contributed to this report
 
If state lawmakers get their way, perhaps
Illinois students may someday be lugging Cliffs Notes-sized dictionaries to school and replacing hefty atlases with road maps.
 
Heeding concerns that the postures of today's youths are being ruined by heavy backpacks, the Illinois Senate voted 32-25 Friday to order the Illinois State Board of Education to develop weight standards for school textbooks.
 
The measure, which goes to the House, is sponsored by Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), who argued that children would be better prepared to learn if they didn't have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders to and from school.
 
"Children are more inclined to carry their books if they're not that heavy, so it certainly could attribute to them doing better in school because they don't have this big old bag that they have to lug around," Trotter contended.
 
But the vote left several educators mystified over why lawmakers were moving more aggressively on textbook weight than on resolving a growing school funding crisis that has left many districts saddled with deficits and oversized classrooms.
 
"Of all the things to work on in a time when there's no money and all these budget concerns," said John Moss, director of special services at Glenbard Township High School District 87. "This particular bill doesn't seem to me to be one of the highest priorities of the moment."
 
Illinois wouldn't be the first state to impose a diet on school textbooks if Trotter's plan becomes law. But Maureen DiMarco, a senior vice president at textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin, complained that such legislation is a form of diversion for lawmakers who find it easier to tackle than more politically difficult education reforms.
 
"It sure sounds like you're looking out for children, protecting their spinal health," said DiMarco, a former secretary of education in
California. "But you're not really doing anything. And it's a whole lot easier to tackle than finding an equitable school-funding system."
 
Deadline set for 2006
 
Trotter's measure, which he said was modeled after a
Virginia law, would require the state board to issue maximum weight standards for textbooks by the middle of 2006. California has a similar law, which led to a state commission finding that textbooks for 2nd-graders ideally shouldn't weigh more than three pounds, and books for high school sophomores shouldn't tip the scales at more than five pounds.
 
The
California panel concluded that it couldn't regulate the number of books a student was allowed to carry, and it also didn't want to scale back curriculum demands, which have a direct correlation to the thickness of schoolbooks.
 
So it urged textbook publishers to offer lighter options to schools: split volumes, books on computer disks and extra classroom sets. Such alternatives, however, can be pricey.
 
Industry experts say that even the heaviest of textbooks typically weigh five pounds or less, within the standards set by the
California commission. Textbook girth, they point out, is dictated by how much material a state mandates must be covered in a subject and how long a district wants a book to last. Softcover books weigh less but are less cost-effective because they wear out faster.
 
"I certainly don't think kids should be dragging around huge weights on their back," DiMarco said. "But the notion that books are the total problem here is very silly. It assumes that children only carry books in their backpacks."
 
Indeed, books are only a part of what's weighing down school backpacks these days. There also are soccer cleats and extra sweat pants, iPods and bulky liter-bottles of soda that students tote to school because more schools have banned vending machines.
 
Trotter said he was urged to draw up the bill by doctors concerned about the growing number of children suffering spinal column injuries, back pain and damaged posture. In 2002, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 29,000 youngsters under age 15 were treated in hospitals or doctors' offices for injuries related to heavy backpacks.
 
"The long-term injuries these children are experiencing--it's not even long term, it's lifetime," he said. "We're talking about saving health-care costs down the road."
 
Glenn "Max" McGee, superintendent of Wilmette District 39 and a former state superintendent, said student health should be a concern, but the quality of textbooks should be more important than weight.
 
"I am all for keeping kids healthy, but when we look at textbooks or resource materials, we are looking for quality," he said. "Sometimes they are thick, and sometimes they aren't."
 
Parent weighs in
 
Mary Lus Mendoza-Taylor, who has a daughter in the 7th grade at
Melrose Park School, agrees that books seem too heavy, but she thinks legislators should focus on more fundamental education problems.
 
"How do they prioritize these issues that are going?" she asked. "Some of these schools are fighting for the basics, and [lawmakers are] not getting it."
 
In
Lake Forest, school Supt. Harry Griffith said he recognizes his students' backpacks are too heavy.
 
"I do think it's a problem," said
Griffith, as he watched a high-schooler dump a heavy backpack into the trunk of a car. "Unfortunately, this type of solution can have unintended consequences, like the elimination of a curriculum."
 
Schools in
Lake Forest have duplicate textbooks in classrooms so students don't have to drag books home and back. That approach might be too expensive for less wealthy districts, but Griffith suggested that state officials come up with other solutions to the problem rather than mandate weight limits.
 
"To be that specific, to create a weight standard, is well intended but misguided,"
Griffith said.
 
Glenbard's Moss said Trotter's bill could become a particularly burdensome issue for educators. And he wondered if standards would have to be made different for male and female students, various grade levels and even athletes and non-athletes.
 
"I think the concern is a good one," he said, "but I'm not quite sure how we get a handle on it."

TOP OF PAGE

From oui to wheeee for Hononegah teacher
French instructor Jacque Bolger is chosen the state's top teacher.
Chris Green, Rockford Register Star
 
DECATUR -- The accolades just keep rolling in for Hononegah's teachers, but none bigger than the selection of Jacque Bolger as the 2005 Illinois Teacher of the Year.
 
The announcement was made Saturday night at the 31st annual Those Who Excel banquet at the Holiday Inn Select.
 
"Oui! I'm so thrilled and so excited," the spunky 56-year-old French teacher said. "It's going to be fun traveling around the state."
 
As teacher of the year, Bolger will serve as the state's ambassador for teaching and represent
Illinois in the National Teacher of the Year program, which is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.
 
"What a kick. It's unbelievable," said Hononegah School Board President Dave Kurlinkus, who was also in attendance. "I'm so happy for her and the district."
 
Bolger has taught French for 34 years, of which the past 24 have been at
Hononegah High School, where she is chairwoman of the foreign-language department overseeing all the foreign-language teachers.
 
She has a bachelor of arts degree in French from
Rosary College and a master of arts for teachers in English from Rockford College.
 
After her undergraduate studies, she initially pursued a career as an interpreter for the United Nations. She then returned to college to complete her teaching certificate and begin her career in education.
 
Bolger was selected from a field of seven finalists, each of whom received the Award of Excellence. All award recipients were nominated by their local schools or community members. A committee of former award winners and representatives from statewide education organizations reviewed the field of nominees and selected the finalists for teacher of the year.
 
The Illinois State Board of Education staff conducted videotaped interviews of each finalist as part of the selection process, with the state superintendent of education making the final selection of teacher of the year.
 
Ann Muraro, state coordinator for the program, helped interview each finalist. "I'm glad I don't make the actual selection, but I really like Jacque a lot," she said. "I like her personality and her ideals."
 
Last year, Jane Frailey, a Hononegah environmental science and biology teacher, was a finalist for the state's top honor.
 
This year, Hononegah teachers Janet Kagan and Timothy Sughroue, both math instructors, will be honored Thursday with Golden Apples at a banquet at the Ramada Plaza Suites and
Rockford Convention Center.
 
A decade's worth of Illinois Teachers of the Year
2004: Deb Perryman, biology and environmental science teacher,
Elgin High School
2003: Dave Morrison, band instructor, Township High School District 214, Arlington Heights
2002: Robert Grimm, physics teacher,
William Fremd High School, Palatine
2001: Jo Crow, science teacher,
Metamora Grade School, Metamora
2000: Kevin Murphy, math and physics teacher,
Lyons Township High School, La Grange
1999: Katherine Bissoondial, fourth-grade teacher,
Glenn Elementary School, Normal
1988: Steven Isoye, science teacher,
Highland Park High School, Highland Park
1987: Valeria Evans, third-grade teacher,
Northmoor Primary School, Peoria
1986: Barbara Allen, art teacher,
Harrisburg High School, Harrisburg
1985:
Lynn Gaddis, sixth-grade teacher, Pepper Ridge School, Normal

TOP OF PAGE

Schools scrambling to rein in senior prank season
Maureen O'Donnell,
Chicago Sun-Times
 
Spring is senior prank season -- a time of year when school administrators sweat.
 
All over the
Chicago area, schools are warning students that their actions in the last days of high school can affect their lives forever.
 
The message has special resonance in St. Charles, where police Sgt. Dan Figgins, 53, collapsed and died earlier this month after chasing a suspect in a break-in at St. Charles East High School. That youth and four other seniors are accused of trying to steal a school golf cart in a prank.
 
As they have done for years, officials at St. Charles East had drafted a letter warning pupils pranks would not be tolerated.
 
It was originally set to be mailed April 26 but "may have gone out ahead of time'' in response to the tragedy, said Tom Hernandez, a spokesman for St. Charles Community Unit School District 303.
 
The principal of
St. Charles North High School sent letters earlier this month.
 
"They were trying to break in and steal school property. That's not playful,'' Hernandez said. "That's criminal.''
 
"This thing with the golf cart had been done before.... I don't know if the kids were considering it traditional, or whatever their thinking was.''
 
The students have already been dealt consequences. They face criminal charges in the incident. The district does not discuss specific disciplinary matters, Hernandez said.
 
'Dumb thing'
A senior prank at
New Trier High School in 2000 caught the attention of MTV.
 
Students stole a master key -- which officials said opened a handful of doors on the
Winnetka campus -- made 600 copies and sent some to students, along with a letter telling them the keys would open the outer doors.
 
"Good kids who did a dumb thing,'' was how then-Principal Wes Baumann put it.
 
New Trier Township High School District 203 sends a letter to seniors, said Supt. Henry Bangser, "making sure they know how important it is to end the year with the same type of grace they always exhibited during the course of the year.''
 
In 2001, in another senior prank, New Trier suspended several girls for driving past the school topless.
 
Balancing 'Stand,' 'Bueller'
At
Skokie's Niles North High School last year, a senior prankster tried to auction the school on eBay.
 
"They can create humor, but not at the expense of another human being, or great expense,'' said Neil Codell, superintendent of Niles Township High Schools District 219.
 
"Life has the beauty and emotion of the movie 'Stand and Deliver,' but it also has the humor of 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' and we try to find the balance,'' Codell said.
 
Highland Park High School's Web site warns seniors to behave as graduation approaches.
 
With administrative permission, playful pranks might be tolerated, said Highland Park High Principal John A. Lorenz. For example, if students told school officials, "'We'd like to fill the dean's office with balloons,'" he said, "we let them.''

TOP OF PAGE

Senate version of HB 750 protects new school funds
Pantagraph Editorial

Chances for passage of a bill introduced last year to increase income taxes and provide property tax relief to benefit schools seem slim at present.
 
But some of those provisions could be dovetailed into another bill that calls for identical income tax increases but higher real estate tax relief and creation of a fund that could be used only for education purposes.
 
Last year's House Bill 750 probably can't make it past Republicans because they're joined by some of the majority Democrats who have problems with portions of the bill.
 
And even if HB 750 could make it to the governor's desk, Gov. Rod Blagojevich made it a campaign promise that he would not increase income or sales taxes.
 
That promise has placed him -- and the state -- in a box. It has contributed to increases in numerous "fees" at the same time the governor claims he is keeping his promise.
 
But as long as Blagojevich shows no sign of change and the Legislature shows few signs of statesmanship, HB 750 seems doomed.
 
The best hope now is a compromise between HB 750 and Senate Bill 1484, both of which have been advanced as shell bills to meet deadlines for bills to be considered. The final language will be added later.
 
Negotiations have been under way among sponsors of both bills in hopes of reaching a single bill that both sides can agree on.
 
If an agreement can be reached that attracts sufficient support, it could render the measure "veto-proof."
 
The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Rick Winkel of
Champaign.
 
Both bills would increase the income tax for individuals from 3 percent to 5 percent and the income tax on corporations from 4.8 percent to 8 percent -- 66.6 percent increases.
 
Many of the similarities end there. The House bill would expand sales taxes, tax retirement income for people making more than $75,000 and eliminate "loopholes" in corporate taxes. The Senate bill would have none of those.
 
To make the tax increases more palatable, the House version would guarantee 20 percent decreases in the education portion of real estate bills the education portion is usually about two-thirds of a tax bill. The Senate version calls for a 30 percent reduction.
 
The House bill would establish tax credits for families earning less than $48,000. This is a way to create tax brackets in a state that has none. The Senate bill has no tax credits.
 
Both bills would increase the amount given per pupil for education from kindergarten through grade 12. Both would be about $6,000 per pupil. The level is now $5,060. The Illinois Education Funding Advisory Board recommended earlier this month that the basic level of per-pupil funding should be $6,405.
 
The major hangup with Republicans is in distribution of the estimated $5.8 billion a year net tax increase. They claim the House bill raises $2 billion more than what is needed and that the $2 billion would go into the state's General Fund, used for day-to-day operations of the state.
 
The Senate bill establishes an Education Assistance Fund into which all money from the increases would go. The fund would be for education purposes only
 
The question is whether it could become another "lottery" fund.
Illinois taxpayers were promised lottery proceeds would go toward education and they have. But what wasn't said was that a like amount would no longer go into education from the General Fund. It was like pouring money in at the top of a funnel and an equal amount falling out at the bottom.
 
Winkel calls his Senate version the "Edgar-plus" bill because it closely resembles a income tax increase proposal put together by former Gov. Jim Edgar in 1997.
 
Two similarities between Edgar's 1997 proposal and now is inclusion of a fund to go to higher education as well as K-12 public schools. The Senate bill would earmark $500 million for higher education. Of that, $400 million would go to universities. The other $100 million would go to community colleges, which Edgar did not propose. That's why Winkel calls his bill "Edgar-plus," with money to the community colleges being the "plus."

The "extra" $1.5 billion (the GOP's alleged $2 billion more in taxes than needed minus the $500 million to higher education) represents most of the the difference between 20 percent (House bill) and 30 percent (Senate bill) property tax rebates.
 
If taxes are to be increased for education, then that money should be used for that purpose.
 
There is one more issue that will undoubtedly surface even if a compromise can be reached on these bills -- accountability.
 
Talk of education funding increases invariably get around to the question of whether more money will improve the quality of education. It's a question that defies an answer and often sidelines meaningful talks.
 
Trust in educators has to be included in this equation, too.
 
If legislators don't like what they're hearing and seeing in these two bills, let them step forward with something better. Complaining has been getting us nowhere for years.
 
We will continue to watch and comment on the progress of the Legislature on this issue. The education funding issue is too important to the state of
Illinois for another session of the Legislature to end without action.
 
Legislators should stay in
Springfield until they come up with a plan that will increase funding specifically for education.
 
We've seen little action out of the state Legislature
 
We hear a lot of talk from
Illinois lawmakers on two subjects: Medical malpractice liability reform and funding for education.
 
That's the problem. There's been plenty of talk, but little action.
 
Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently issued a call to raise education standards for graduating high school students and wants to milk more money out of the state's riverboat gambling casinos. But that doesn't solve the long-term funding problem, nor does it increase student performance to the desired, improved levels. All of this is just trimming around the edges, not getting to the heart of the problem.
 
Meanwhile, the Legislature is talking about everything from restricting access to tanning beds to forcing
Illinois employers to provide four weeks paid leave to workers with ill loved ones, while our medical malpractice situation in Illinois steadily worsens.
 
What's going on in
Springfield? Unfortunately, more fingerpointing and not much else.
 
With regard to medical malpractice, Republicans continue to accuse the Democrats of being in the trial lawyers' pockets and stalling any legislative reform attempts. Democrats accuse the GOP of stonewalling on discussion of any measure because the Republicans want to drag out this issue to continue to score political points against the Democrats. Access to affordable health care is the real issue for the Legislature's constituents, and the issue is no closer to being resolved than it was two years ago at this time.
 
Meanwhile, our public schools in
Illinois continue to struggle against difficult odds.
 
On April 5, two-thirds of all referendums on the ballot in   
Illinois, which would have pumped more money into schools, were defeated. It's clear local property owners are fed up with the heavy burden they are carrying and most aren't willing to shoulder an even heftier load.
 
For years and years, under both Democratic and Republican governors,
Illinois has not addressed systemic reform of education funding.
 
It seems that every year politicians' desire to survive another season wins out over the idea of summoning up the political will to take action.
 
It appears that 2005 is shaping up to be another repeat of past performances.
 
What can you do? Simply contact your local legislator. Ask your legislators what they are willing to do to bring about medical malpractice reform and education funding reform.
 
Action is way overdue. Our state cannot afford for another year - another legislative session - to go by without effective reform.

TOP OF PAGE

School aid reform, not mere taxes, needed
Decatur Herald & Review Editorial
 
A lot of special-interest groups - most recently an association representing superintendents of the state's large school districts and teachers - are pushing the Illinois General Assembly to increase funding for education.
 
The teachers group appeared at the state Capitol on Wednesday to lobby - dressed in red. Apparently red is "too stressful" to grade papers, but not too stressful for lawmakers.
 
A week ago, the organization that represents the state's largest districts threw their support behind a "tax swap" idea, claiming that the lack of state funding was causing school districts to operate in the red.
 
At the same time that school teachers and administrators are clamoring for more money, voters are sending a clear message that they don't want to spend more. Almost 65 percent of the school referendums in the April election failed, sending a pretty clear message that voters are tired of spending more money for education and getting the same results.
 
The real solution is a total revamping of the education funding system. Schools are too dependent on the property tax - which varies widely from locale to locale. That causes an uneven funding situation and creates rich school districts and poor school districts. The state needs to move to a system such as many states have adopted, where education is funded primarily through the income tax and the money is distributed in more equal amounts to school districts.

That's what supporters of House Bill 750 claim they are doing. But this bill is really a hidden tax increase. The bill would increase the income tax and lower the property tax somewhat. But taxpayers would still be paying more.
 
Educators and legislators need to understand there are solutions to the education funding problem aside from clipping the taxpayers more.
 
Gov. Rod Blagojevich, for example, has proposed a series of pension reforms that would eventually save the state millions of dollars and free up money for education funding. But many of the same teachers who lobbied in
Springfield on Wednesday are fighting the pension reform issue, including the practice of giving educators end-of-career pay raises to boost their pensions.
 
A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune points out another reason taxpayers may be reluctant to part with more dollars.
Illinois has 881 school districts, half of them with fewer than 150 students. By comparison, Missouri has 524 public school districts; Iowa, 370; Wisconsin, 426; and Indiana, 294.
 
Of course, each
Illinois district comes complete with well-compensated administrators and other overhead. Think how many dollars would be available for classroom teaching if Illinois cut the number of districts by one-third or one-half.
 
Reforming the pension system and consolidating school districts are two methods to get more money spent on students, without raising the burden on taxpayers.
 
The April referendum results are pretty clear: Taxpayers are not eager to spend more money on education because it doesn't appear the money is going to the students. The state has other options to fund education

TOP OF PAGE

Education plans tread water for now
Kristen McQueary, Daily Southtown
 
Judging by the unanimous vote in the state Senate last week, Gov. Rod Blagojevich's plan to increase high school graduation requirements is seeing little resistance.
 
But the amendment that passed was the easy part. It didn't include the funding mechanism to pay for the plan and pump an additional $300 million into schools by doubling the number of games at existing riverboat casinos.
 
The gambling bill and education funding legislation haven't moved as swiftly as the more-docile graduation requirements bill. With one month before the end of the legislative session, lawmakers have yet to make sausage out of the jumble of education proposals introduced.
 
In a meeting with the Daily Southtown's editorial board, Blagojevich's director of education reform, Elliot Regenstein, said about 40 percent of school districts statewide will be impacted by the graduation requirement changes. Most of them are downstate.
 
Many districts, including Chicago Public Schools, already meet the math, science and English mandates under Blagojevich's bill.
 
Blagojevich's plan to increase the number of games at existing casinos, meanwhile, hasn't moved beyond the discussion stage. He announced his support last month for more casino games as a way to boost funding for schools.
 
Gamblers would spend more at the boats, Blagojevich's plan presumes, if seats opened up more often at their favorite video poker machine or $5 blackjack table. Casinos are currently capped at how many games they can offer.
 
Even if lawmakers warm to the gaming bill, they'll still jockey over how to divide the new proceeds. Blagojevich proposed plugging the money directly into the state aid formula, which steers aid to lower-income school districts. Wealthier suburban districts receive a smaller share of state aid, mostly through categorical grants that pay for programs like special education.
 
For the past two years — and especially last year — House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) negotiated a split of education funding to boost the state's contribution to categorical programs. He is irked that under the governor's current plan, he'll have to fight for it again.
 
"I'm not yelling and screaming out it as much as it seems like a deliberate attempt to ignore the suburbs," Cross said. "I'm not opposed to putting more money into the state aid formula, but I think we've shown the governor's office before that (categoricals) are important, too, so why go down this road?"
 
And that's assuming the gaming bill passes and the legislature has $300 million to divvy up.
 
"I'm not so sure this gaming bill passes. I'm not accepting the fact that there is going to be this amount of money," Cross said.
 
Meanwhile, Blagojevich remains opposed to education funding legislation, Senate Bill 750, which would increase state income taxes from 3 percent to 5 percent — among other tax increases — to boost money for schools. A wage earner making $75,000 annually currently pays about $2,250 a year in state income taxes. That would jump to $3,750 under the bill.
 
The bill includes a mechanism for property tax relief, but Regenstein said some taxpayers will still see an overall increase in their taxes.
 
Looking at the results of April 5 school referenda requesting local tax increases — two-thirds of which failed — Regenstein said it doesn't appear taxpayers would support an income tax hike.
 
"The people of
Illinois are tapped out enough and asking them to pay more is unfair," he said.

TOP OF PAGE

Use of obscure school tax sparks 4 Downstate suits
Diane Rado,
Chicago Tribune, 4/20/05
 
Hundreds of school districts across the state and dozens in the Chicago region have dramatically increased special taxes for legal claims and insurance expenses over the last five years, a recent study shows, but not necessarily because legal troubles have mounted.
 
The obscure tax, which doesn't show up on homeowners' bills, in some districts has paid for portions of salaries for teachers, administrators, secretaries, custodians and cafeteria workers, a Tribune review of court records and district financial reports shows.
 
The practice has spawned lawsuits against four districts on behalf of thousands of taxpayers. They allege their tax dollars for legal judgments and liability insurance have been illegally diverted, and they want their money back. The first lawsuit goes to trial May 2 in Stephenson County Circuit Court.
 
"It's an outright abuse," said
Freeport attorney Robert Slattery, who filed the lawsuits. "I mean, people would get indicted if they were doing this in corporate America."
 
Local school officials say the expenditures are legal and proper under the law that governs the use of the so-called "tort immunity" tax dollars. Using those funds for salaries has enabled cash-strapped districts to avoid deeper cuts, they say.
 
That law allows districts and other government bodies to levy a special tax on property owners to cover legal settlements, liability insurance, worker's compensation and other risk-management programs to protect them from lawsuits. Unlike some tax rates that make up each school district's levy, the rate for tort immunity expenses is not capped.
 
Statewide, 220 districts--nearly a fourth of the state's school districts--have increased their tax levies for tort immunity expenses by 100 percent or more between 1998 and 2003, according to a recent study by the Illinois Business RoundTable, a
Chicago business organization.
 
Of those, 48 are in the six-county
Chicago region.
 
A Tribune analysis of 2003-2004 financial reports of the Chicago-area districts showed that nearly every district moved the tort money into its main education operating account for teacher and administrator salaries, pumping up reserves and, in some cases, avoiding deficits.
 
That makes them stronger in the eyes of the state, which rates districts on their financial health and considers reserves and spending practices in the analysis. State financial ratings are to be released Wednesday by the Illinois State Board of Education and are expected to show improvements in district finances.
 
State education officials said they don't monitor the use of tort immunity tax dollars--or how they prop up the bottom line--because those funds are managed by local school boards and reviewed by outside auditors hired by districts.
 
Local school officials and attorneys say the law spells out that districts can use the funds for "educational, inspectional and supervisory services" related to ensuring schools are safe for students, staff and visitors, and protecting districts from lawsuits.
 
For example, a custodian who does repairs and ensures school buildings are locked could be paid with tort immunity dollars.
 
But Slattery, who has filed lawsuits against the
Quincy, Freeport, Pearl City and Coal City school districts, said school officials have stretched the definition so much that everyone, it seems, is involved in keeping schools safe.
 
In the four districts in the lawsuits, tort money is used to pay part of the salaries of teachers and administrators, school nurses, secretaries, bookkeepers, and even music, foreign language and drama instructors, among other staff, according to school district documents.
 
In
Pearl City, for example, a drama teacher spends some time making sure that students involved in building sets for a school play are not injured. That enables the district to pay part of the teacher's stipend for extracurricular activities from tort immunity tax dollars.
 
Pearl City officials could not be reached for comment.
 
Coal City allots 30 percent of principal salaries and 10 to 12 percent or more of teacher salaries to risk-management duties.
 
Supt. Kent Bugg said the district surveyed teachers to determine how much time they spent on supervisory duties that keep children safe, such as monitoring halls during five-minute passing periods between classes.
 
He also said the district worked closely with its attorneys to ensure the expenditures were appropriate.
 
Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business RoundTable, said he fears that with tort money paying for salaries, districts won't have enough left over if they have to pay a legal judgment.
 
"What happens when you have a legitimate lawsuit--all of a sudden you have to lay off staff," said Mays.
 
He said his organization may seek changes in the law to clarify how the tort money can be used.
 
In the 48 Chicago-area districts that have raised tort levies by 100 percent or more, 21 reported to the state they spent some of the money on the contested category of "educational, inspectional and supervisory services."

Will County's Frankfort School District 157C, which increased its tort immunity taxes by more than 1,000 percent since 1998, spent about 93 percent of those funds in that category last school year.
 
The district's chief financial official, Ernest Tonelli, said the district uses tort money for a small portion of each teacher's salary--usually less than 5 percent. The district has seen increases in liability insurance costs and has paid more attention to school security since the 1999 Columbine school shootings.
 
Tonelli also said his district and others in the
Chicago region are limited in how much revenue they can raise, because of tax caps that restrict overall increases every year to the rate of inflation.
 
So residents may not see an overall increase in their school taxes even if tort taxes are going up, because districts would have to adjust the tax rate in another area to stay within the cap.
 
But he acknowledged that taxpayers could also see a decrease in their taxes if districts didn't raise the tort tax rate.
 
Schools raise taxes for legal claims, insurance.
 
Hundreds of
Illinois school districts have increased the amount of "tort immunity" taxes they collect for legal claims and insurance. Those funds in some districts have been used to pay for other things, such as salaries for teachers, custodians and secretaries.

TOP OF PAGE

Budget ‘ignores’ suburban schools
Sara Burnett, Daily Herald
 
The two suburban members of the Illinois State Board of Education said Wednesday they want another chance to set priorities for next year’s education budget, noting the governor’s latest plan “ignores” suburban schools.
 
Board member Dean Clark of
Glen Ellyn also said he’s concerned the spending plan announced in March by Gov. Rod Blagojevich differs significantly from the priorities approved by the board a month earlier.
 
“If the will of the majority is to go along … fine,”
Clark said during a meeting of the board’s finance committee. “But I have a problem with it.”
 
Becky Watts, director of public information for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the governor’s staff will meet with the board and that they look forward to discussing priorities.
 
“We all know this is a very lengthy process, and it’s really just beginning,”
Watts said.
 
In February, the board was asked to prioritize how to spend an expected $140 million in education dollars.
 
The bulk of those dollars were put toward a $40 to $45 increase in the state’s per-pupil funding formula — money that mostly helps
Chicago and downstate schools.
 
It also included $20 million for state and federal mandates such as special education and $10 million to help schools comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
 
But in March, Blagojevich unveiled a new plan that included $440 million in new funds, much of it raised through expanding gambling.
 
Of that money, nearly $380 million would go to per-pupil funding. Most suburban districts, however, take in too much money in property taxes to receive those funds.
 
The new plan also cut the $20 million for special education and the $10 million for ADA — dollars that would have helped suburban schools — while adding $8.6 million for districts to offer Advanced Placement classes and $500,000 for agricultural education.
 
“I don’t think you can ignore the needs of suburban schools … and that’s really what’s happening here,”
Clark said.
 
Board member Joyce Karon of
Barrington agreed.
 
Clark and Karon are the only two veteran board members. The seven others all were appointed by Blagojevich last year.
 
The comments come just days after House Republican leader Tom Cross sent a scathing letter to state Superintendent Randy Dunn calling the newest budget proposal — which he presented recently to a Senate committee along with the original board proposal — “misguided.”

TOP OF PAGE

Convicted sex abuser is suing local school
By Rob Olmstead, Daily Herald Staff Writer,
4/22/05

A man who was convicted of five counts of sexual abuse of a minor under 13 years of age is suing
Schaumburg High School, arguing he should be allowed to attend his daughter’s graduation.

At least some of his victims attend the high school, documents filed with the lawsuit indicate.

If the 52-year-old
Chicago man gets his way, it would not be the first time he has been on Schaumburg High School property.

In 2004, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 changed its policies after it discovered the man, a repairman, was working in the school as a subcontractor to a vendor. After the friend of one of the man’s victims recognized him, a police officer assigned to the school escorted him out and the district ordered him not to return.

Superintendent Roger Thornton and the board immediately expanded their policy of doing background checks on employees to include subcontractors.

The man — whom the Daily Herald is not naming to protect the identity of his victims — sued in federal court Thursday.

His attorney, Richard C. Moenning, has been engaged in correspondence with the district for several weeks, trying to get them to relent.

“My client is a compliant child sex offender. Unless you know some facts not disclosed in your letter, he has every right to enter school zones where permitted by law,” Moenning wrote on March 17.

Moenning went on to quote an appellate court opinion on the law that says “it confines its prohibitions to those child sex offenders who are not parents or guardians of children at the school and those without permission to be present.

“You have apparently missed some important aspects of (the sex offender’s) circumstance,” fired back
Thornton on March 22. “(The sex offender) was in Schaumburg High School repairing (equipment) in the presence of students without any adult supervision. (He) was not performing the parental duties seemingly permitted in the statute … Rather, he was performing duties associated with that of a vendor.”

Thornton then went on to point out that the sex offender was seen by a student — a friend of one of the victims —who recognized him and that his presence caused a disturbance. Citing a policy that allows the district to ban anyone when their presence causes a disturbance, Thornton said the ban was still in effect.

“(The friends of the victims) and the girls who were sexually abused did nothing wrong. They were victims and will again become so if their rights to freely attend school events without worry of (the sex offender’s) presence are compromised,”
Thornton wrote.

District officials had not seen the suit Thursday and declined comment. The sex offender’s lawyer and family could not be reached for comment.

The sex offender was first charged with the five counts of sex abuse in February 1996 and pleaded guilty in March 1999. He was sentenced in April 1999 to four years in prison by Cook County Judge John J. Scotillo at the
Rolling Meadows branch.

TOP OF PAGE

Meet the press
Illinois' first lady submits to Harristown school's traditional grilling
By SHEILA SMITH,
Decatur Herald & Review Staff Writer, 4/21/05

SPRINGFIELD - Patti Blagojevich patiently answered the reporter's question Wednesday about her husband's future. The first lady said he had enough to handle as governor and she couldn't think about him running for vice president or president anytime in the near future.

The question posed to the first lady came from no ordinary reporter. It was asked by Mason Eaton, 10, who was serving in the role of a Herald & Review reporter. Mason's direct question was: "Would you like to see her husband one day become a senator, vice president or president?"

Mason was one of 32 fourth-grade students from
Harristown Grade School, armed with pens and note pads, who fired questions at Mrs. Blagojevich. It was the 35th year Harristown students have interviewed the first lady of Illinois.

Jeff Deremiah, a retired teacher, started the event back in 1970 when Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie was in office and students interviewed the first lady, Dorothy Ogilvie. Other first ladies who were interviewed by Deremiah's students included Roberta Walker, Jayne Thompson, Brenda Edgar, Lura Lynn Ryan and now Patti Blagojevich.

"I feel young children should be encouraged in career education. They also learn to get up in front of a group to speak, which helps build their self-confidence," Deremiah said.

Mrs. Blagojevich, dressed casually in a white blouse and slacks, sat in the main ballroom during a news conference staged from them Wednesday at the governor's mansion in
Springfield.

"I really liked it and it was fun. I just didn't know it would be like that," said Eaton. But he said don't bet on him becoming a journalist in the future.

Kelsie Dunakey asked the first lady, "How do you balance your time as first lady and how much time do you spend with your family?"

"You have to balance your time and know what your priorities are. We always put our girls first," Mrs. Blagojevich said.

Shea Cummings asked Mrs. Blagojevich if she ever visits other first ladies. And Jordan Jump asked her what the governor has done to support the troops since the war.

After the news conference, Mrs. Blagojevich posed for pictures with the students and signed autographs.

"The children are very sweet," she said. "It's a nice event and tradition.

TOP OF PAGE

Phone youth: More kids going wireless
By
GENEVA WHITE, Northwest Herald, 4/22/05

Standing outside
Woodstock High School on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Dave Byers picked up the silver gadget playing the "Super Mario Brothers" theme song from his hip.

It was his mother calling to see whether he could arrange another ride home from school.

"They [cell phones] help because I don't have to wait for my ride," the 15-year-old said after answering his call. "I know when they're coming late."

But Byers isn't alone among his peers when it comes to carrying his own cell phone. According to a recent study by NOP World Technology in
New York, about 44 percent of youngsters between age 10 and 18 own cell phones.

And as more and more students go wireless,
McHenry County schools are having to add the issue of cell-phone use to discipline policies.

Ron Ludwig, principal of
Hannah Beardsley Middle School in Crystal Lake, said that in recent years, the school had had to put a greater emphasis on cell-phone rules.

"It's just the way of the world," Ludwig said. "They can get ahold of their parents after school if something is canceled or if they get out of a sport sooner."

A few years ago, Ludwig said, the number of Hannah Beardsley eighth-graders with cell phones was about 1 percent to 2 percent. Now, almost half the eighth-graders have cell phones, he said. Students are prohibited from using cell phones during school hours and must keep them turned off while at school, he said.

"Our biggest concern is theft," Ludwig said. "In the olden days where you would have a theft of a watch or something, now you have these high-tech items, and we're expected to police them if they're stolen. That's a challenge."

In
Woodstock School District 200, students cannot use their cell phones during school hours, and the devices must remain in their lockers, said Barb Banker, spokeswoman for the district. Student caught with cell phones at school are subject to having the items confiscated and their parents called, she said.

Woodstock High School Assistant Principal Ron Bendis said that although he did not own a cell phone himself, he made sure that his son and daughter had cell phones when they went away to college.

"You have to find a happy medium with them," he said. "Parents are so busy; that's their way of communicating with [their children.]"

Though more rare, cell-phone use is not just limited to youngsters in their teens and tweens. Dee Kleszczynski, assistant store manager at Crystal Cellular Communications in
Crystal Lake, said she once saw a 7-year-old get her own cell phone and plan. But most of the time, parents are buying phones for children age 10 and older, she said.

Firefly
Mobile is jumping on the wireless preteen bandwagon with its recent launch of a mobile phone designed specifically for children that includes two speed-dial keys with a picture of a man and woman for easy access to Mom and Dad. Parents can program the phone to hold up to 22 outgoing numbers.

Kleszczynski said parents often bought family-share plans, and she usually recommended that they give the free phones that accompany the plans to their children, rather than buying them fancy gadgets.

"You don't need to spend $400 on a phone when you have a free phone and it's for an 11-year-old," she said.

A few minutes after Byers got off his phone, a white sport utility vehicle, driven by his friend's mother, pulled up. As the boys hop into the vehicle, the driver, Amy O'Neil, said she was glad that her children had cell phones.

"They're very good with it," she said. "It's peace of mind for us."

TOP OF PAGE

Suburbs should not receive even less
Daily Herald Editorial, 4/22/05

When it comes to money, suburban school boards and administrators expect relatively little from
Springfield.

That is not an entirely disparaging reflection on budget makers in the state capital. Most suburban school officials understand that their relatively greater property tax wealth means they will be expected to rely heavily on property tax revenue, instead of state money. For the most part, the state sends its education dollars to downstate and
Chicago schools, which generally do not have the strong property tax bases that characterize many suburban districts. Everyone understands that is the way the system will work until the state overhauls its school funding methods.

And while suburban voters recently have become less inclined to vote for further property tax increases, suburban schools still have been able to maintain academic excellence with very little state help.

At the very least, however, suburban school authorities and lawmakers go into each legislative session expecting that what little state money they do receive will not be yanked away for use elsewhere.

But that is what an early budget draft would do, and that is why suburban officials are — and should be — responding with genuine ire and calls for the proposal to be revised.

Early this year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposed a budget that called for a $140 million increase in state funding for public schools next year. So negative was the reaction from the education lobby and some legislators of the governor’s own party that Blagojevich hatched a plan, through expanded gambling at existing casinos, to place an additional $300 million in the pot.

But more may be less for suburban districts. Randy Dunn, the governor’s state superintendent, has indicated that even if the additional $300 million materializes, that $20 million earmarked earlier for special education and $10 million designated for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act may disappear.

That prompted House Republican leader Tom Cross, of Southwest suburban
Oswego, to send a stern letter reminding Dunn that the state board of education’s obligation is to all public schools, including suburban districts. The shift also triggered protests Wednesday from two suburban members of the state board of education.

Such funds earmarked to help cover the cost of state and federal mandates are about all that most suburban districts receive from the state. The loss of such assistance would be particularly damaging, because special education services are disproportionately costly to provide.

Suburban districts don’t expect a lot, but what’s fair is fair. Cross is correct — this shift is, to use his word, misguided. If the governor, his board of education and
Chicago and downstate legislators can’t see fit to restore the dollars suburban schools count on to help pay for mandates, then they shouldn’t count on much suburban legislative support for anything else.

TOP OF PAGE

Graduation rules advance, but not gambling plan
Daily Southtown Editorial,
4/22/05

THE ISSUE: Plan to boost graduation requirements moves forward, but not the plan to pay for it.

WE SAY: Gov's proposal is looking like lip service.

Maybe we're just cynical, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich's spring education initiative is looking more like lip service than a substantive plan to improve the schools.

A few weeks ago, the governor proposed increasing the number of gambling positions at
Illinois casinos, from 11,000 to more than 23,000. The state's take from the new slot machines and table games would be about $300 million, the governor says, and he pledged that money would go toward raising the so-called "foundation level" in the state's public schools.

Along with the gambling expansion, Blagojevich proposed new graduation requirements for
Illinois high schools. Illinois now ranks among the bottom 10 states in how demanding its graduation requirements are. The new requirements would raise the state to the "middle of the pack," the governor's staff says.

The new graduation requirements breezed through the state Senate the other day, gaining unanimous approval. The change would require students to gain 18 credits to graduate, up from 16, and on paper would boost the number of English, math and science classes students would have to take. It turns out, however, that for 60 percent of the state's schools, the local graduation requirements are already more demanding than the governor's proposal. For kids in
Chicago and the suburbs, the new state requirements would change very little. In Chicago, for example, students would have to take an English class and a class in another area that emphasized writing skills.

The new standards would primarily affect downstate schools.

Nonetheless, the Senate quickly approved the change. Why wouldn't they, since the measure said nothing about how the new classes and new teachers would be paid for? The gambling expansion will be part of another bill that hasn't been put together yet.

What happens if the gambling expansion gets shot down? That could happen, because some important gambling supporters in the Legislature would prefer to authorize new casinos, perhaps in
Chicago, Rockford and the south suburbs. Gambling opponents prefer no expansion. Education supporters have always objected to gambling revenue as a school funding source and would rather see something more dependable and less unsavory, like an income tax increase. Even the casino owners say they won't support the change because, after buying new machines, remodeling and paying taxes at a 70-percent rate, the profit would not be enough to make it worth their while.

As it turns out, the governor doesn't have a Plan B in the event the gambling plan fails. For that matter, there are not many details available about Plan A. But members of his education staff told the Daily Southtown editorial board that funding isn't a serious problem at this point because the changes won't be fully implemented until 2009. In fact, during the first year of the changes, all that will be added will be a single math class requirement for freshmen.

So we have a plan that so far has no funding, but that's OK because the plan doesn't really do very much, other than allow the governor to claim he tried to pump an additional $300 million into public schools. If the Legislature says no to new gambling, the governor can say he tried.

The schools meanwhile will continue to wait for meaningful reform of the way the state pays for public education.

While they're waiting, they may have to add teachers and classes mandated by the state — with new money to pay for them at best a longshot.

TOP OF PAGE

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

NATIONAL

Defying No Child law could cost Utah
Ed secretary says federal funds likely to be cut by up to $76M
Ronnie
Lynn, The Salt Lake Tribune 
 
Contrary to assurances from the governor's office,
Utah could lose as much as $76 million in federal funding if lawmakers pass a bill challenging No Child Left Behind during this week's special session.
 
The revelation came in a letter Monday from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. The letter responds to Hatch's request for input on state legislation - now known as House Bill 1001 - that would put
Utah's school-accountability system ahead of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush's initiative to close the achievement gap between minority and white students.
 
''While the enactment of the bill itself does not guarantee noncompliance with NCLB, the implementation of a number of its provisions is likely to cause conflicts and trigger . . . [financial] consequences,'' Spellings wrote. ''Several principles in the bill are fundamentally troublesome, and appear to be designed to provoke noncompliance with federal law and needless confrontation.''
 
HB1001 gives school officials authority to ignore NCLB provisions that conflict with state education priorities or cost state dollars.
 
In jeopardy are $55 million in Title I funds for disadvantaged students, $19 million in Title II funds for teacher training and $2 million in Title V funds for parental-choice programs, Spellings wrote.
 
Hardest hit would be districts with large populations of low-income students, such as
Salt Lake City, Granite and San Juan school districts.
 
"It's demoralizing news but not entirely surprising," said Charles Hausman, an associate superintendent in
Salt Lake City district. "It's difficult to understand how anyone can support legislation that could put at risk $76 million for education of children when Utah already spends the least per pupil in the nation."
 
Preliminary figures from the state Office of Education show his district is expecting nearly $9 million from the three federal pots outlined by Spellings. Much of that money pays for extra teachers in disadvantaged schools.
 
State Schools Superintendent Patti Harrington, an ardent supporter of HB1001, acknowledged the loss would hurt students who need the most help. At the same time, she frowned on the department's ''threat.''
 
"I regret that the Department of Education continues to be an agency of threats to the state," she said Monday.
 
Harrington said the state Office of Education would not defy NCLB and risk the federal funds - unless mandated by the Legislature.
 
''I don't know how strong their directives will be,'' she said.
 
That will become clear today and Wednesday, as the Legislature debates HB1001 - known during the general session as House Bill 135.
 
Until recently, HB1001 has had overwhelming   support from a wide swath of politically disparate groups, including the Eagle Forum and the Utah Education Association, not to mention unanimous endorsements from the House during the general session.
 
Some of that support has eroded as minority groups and lawmakers representing diverse districts began to foresee possible implications of the bill, such as weaker accountability for minority students' achievement.
 
Even so, Republican leaders have promised the bill's easy passage, and the governor's office reiterated its assurances that federal funds are not at risk.
 
"While the law would not put at risk Title I funds directly, state school officials would be required to act judiciously under the law in order to continue Title I and other federal funding sources for education," Huntsman attorney Mike Lee said in a prepared statement.

TOP OF PAGE

Schools Trying to Relieve Testing Stress
Martha Raffaele, Associated Press, Newsday
 
COLUMBIA, Pa. -- Across the nation, educators are trying a variety of methods -- including beach days, barbecues, flute music and fun hats -- to ease student test anxiety as schools face increased pressure to improve their scores under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
 
Asia Pearson and her fifth-grade classmates enjoyed a taste of summer as a reward for enduring a battery of state math and reading tests.
 
After their exams, the students changed into sunglasses, spaghetti-strap tank tops and flip-flops -- clothing normally banned under the
Taylor Elementary School dress code -- and had a make-believe "beach day." Beach Day capped a week of activities that also included Pajama Day.
 
"The test was hard, but the activities were the fun part," said
Asia, 11, as she sat on a chair draped with a rainbow-colored Mickey Mouse beach towel.
 
"We need to somehow take the stress off the kids, and somehow make those days as normal as possible," said Brent Swartzmiller, principal of
Wayne Trail Elementary School in suburban Toledo, Ohio.
 
At Swartzmiller's school, one teacher leads her students through mental and physical exercises before
Ohio's state tests, which are administered in March. In an exercise designed to increase blood flow to the brain, the students touch their chests, with their thumbs and index fingers just below their collarbones.
 
"It sounds wacky, but at the same time I think it does work," Swartzmiller said.
 
Joseph Pisacano, a fifth-grade teacher in the Philadelphia suburb of Warminster, decided to use tai chi as a stress-relief activity two years ago after he saw how it relaxed a group of 100 students during an Asian culture celebration at his school.
 
For about 15 minutes at the beginning of each test day, Pisacano leads his students through a set of meditative movements while flute music plays in the background.
 
"What I've noticed is that students have a positive reaction to the test," Pisacano said. "Everybody applies themselves. I don't have a lot of heads down on the desk and `Ugh!' -- which is pretty typical for fifth grade when you have something as monotonous as six days of testing."
 
Other schools target students' stomachs.
 
At
Memorial High School in Madison, Wis., teacher prepare a buffet-style breakfast for sophomores on the mornings of their state tests, which take place in the fall.
 
For several years, the K-8 Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center in
Phoenix has kicked off its four-day state testing period with a barbecue.
 
This year, the school had the students make "thinking caps" to wear on the day of the event, said Principal Carolyn Repp, who donned a student-designed paper hat festooned with curly ribbons for the occasion last week.
 
"It's a celebration for them, to know how smart they are and how capable they are," she said.
 
Gregory J. Cizek, an education professor at the
University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus, said relaxation techniques can help take the edge off students' test anxiety. But he cautioned that other activities could worsen it by drawing extra attention to the test.
 
"It's almost better, when you introduce the test, to say, `There's the test, do your best, and I'll be happy to answer any questions,'" Cizek said.
 
Robin Young, the
Taylor Elementary School teacher who allowed her students a "beach day," sees the offbeat test-day clothing themes as a harmless way to blow off steam.
 
"Any chance I can get to allow them to be children, and doing what I remember doing as a child, is a good thing," she said.

TOP OF PAGE

New Orleans' school system is a 'train wreck'
Adam Nossiter, The Associated Press
 
NEW ORLEANS — Dozens of employees indicted or convicted on corruption charges. Tens of millions of dollars unaccounted for. Eight superintendents in seven years. Rock-bottom test scores. Shootings, sirens and police uniforms, often. The threat of bankruptcy and bounced checks, constantly.
 
In the dismal gallery of failing urban school systems,
New Orleans' may be the biggest horror of them all.
 
"Urban districts, in general, will often have problems with instruction, with finances, with operations," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools in
Washington. "But they don't always occur at the same time. And New Orleans is really facing a three-front challenge."
 
New Orleans "is almost a national scandal," said James Harvey of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The consistent gossip about favoritism and corruption is extremely troubling." And the city has become "murderers row for superintendents."
 
The latest crisis in the 64,000-student system broke two weeks ago. First, teachers nearly missed a paycheck, the system was so broke. Then, the state threatened a takeover. Finally, the superintendent, a reformer from
New York who, like many before him, entered with grand plans, was forced out by a school board disenchanted with his reform ideas.
 
Superintendent Anthony Amato's fate was sealed last week at a board meeting crackling with racial hostility. Much of the hooting was directed at him and his white supporters in the school system, which is almost 94 percent black.
 
Financially, the school system is a "train wreck,"
Louisiana's top government watchdog, legislative auditor Steve Theriot, told lawmakers in Baton Rouge. No one knows for certain how much money it has, or how much money it owes.
 
At the glass-and-steel school administration complex across the
Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, FBI agents and other federal and state investigators have opened an office to pick through the evidence of graft.
 
Just last week, a payroll clerk was sent to jail for stealing $250,000 — she had kept her job with the New Orleans schools, even after being indicted on charges of stealing from a bank. A year ago, the district's insurance manager pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks. One of the bribe-givers was former Mayor Marc Morial's aunt.
 
In February, the U.S. Education Department said nearly $70 million in federal money for low-income children was either not properly accounted for or misspent. State officials said one reason is that for years, teachers and principals wanting promotions to more lucrative central office positions have been put into accounting jobs for which they are not qualified.
 
"There is not one accountant working in the accounting department," Theriot said. "There's not one in the trenches."
 
State and federal officials are demanding that every aspect of the district's finances be turned over to an outside accounting firm. The locals are balking, but they probably cannot resist much longer:
Washington and Baton Rouge, which give New Orleans more than half its $577 million budget, have the upper hand.
 
Meanwhile, morale in the beleaguered teaching corps is sagging.
 
"We're constantly hit by these disasters," said Leo Laventhal, a French and Spanish teacher at one of the city's magnet schools. Often, colleagues at his school never receive their paychecks. And it is no use complaining: "We call the central office, and nobody answers the phone," Laventhal said.
 
Long ago abandoned by this city's middle class, the schools in
New Orleans are in sad shape academically. New Orleans accounts for 55 of Louisiana's 78 worst schools. More than two-thirds of the school system's fourth-graders do not have basic competence in math.
 
In the sagging old neighborhoods of
New Orleans, the schools are dilapidated cinder-block buildings ringed by barbed wire. Outside one earlier this month, a student was shot in the neck. Afterward, his schoolmates at Lawless High mugged for the TV cameras and walked nonchalantly over the medical debris left behind by paramedics.
 
At last Monday's raucous school board meeting, a plan pushed by whites to expand an academically successful magnet school was shouted down amid cries of racism.
 
Yet one scholar said the plan — advanced by the latest superintendent to be forced out — could have led to the salvation of the district.
 
"That may be the one thing that could draw the middle class back in to
New Orleans," said sociologist Carl Bankston of Tulane University. "The root of the problem isn't the superintendent, or the school board. It's a school district without much of a middle class at all. I would say that's at the heart of why the school system is so bad."

TOP OF PAGE

Bush is failing our school systems
Opinion by Melissa Webster, Contributing Writer, The Vanguard,
4/19/05

The No Child Left Behind Act is yet another example of the idiocy that is so prevalent in the federal government since George Bush became president. Riddled with idealistic, yet unrealistic, even absurd requirements, I have trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that the act even passed Congress.

Enacted in 2001, NCLB mandates every state carry out annual testing to assess the performance of each and every student in all grades. This includes special education students, who are now expected to perform at the same level as students in the mainstream. Call me crazy, but if they could perform at the same level as mainstream students, they wouldn't be in special education in the first place.

David Holland, a math teacher and basketball coach at
Vigor High School in Mobile, Alabama says, "NCLB is well intended, but it's not necessarily thought out."

He adds, "The idea that a child with a 60 IQ can achieve at the same level as a child with a 120 IQ is preposterous."

Special education students are expected to take the same standardized tests within the same time frame as the mainstream students. If this isn't ridiculous enough, forcing them to take these tests creates low self-esteem when they do not perform well and undue stress to a population of students who are already struggling. Thus, leaving a lot of children behind.

If 40 percent of students in every subgroup, including special education, do not meet the standards of performance required by NCLB, their school is deemed "low performing" and subject to cuts in federal funding and a state takeover.

Yet, there is no national form of assessment. It is up to each state to determine what is low performing, which, to say the least, makes for serious inconsistencies. Though it's admirable to want every student in the
United States to go to college and achieve at the top level, it simply isn't possible. This is just another example of idealism run amok.

In addition to this complete lack of common sense, NCLB also places an unnecessary and unconstitutional financial burden on the states.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says, "Requiring Connecticut to spend $8 million of its own money to conduct additional testing, when it has a successful 20-year history of alternate-grade testing, violates the Unfunded Mandates Provision of NCLB, 20 USC Sec. 7907(a), as well as the Spending Clause under the U.S. Constitution."

Wait...what? Because Congress has enacted a law that mandates adherence to that law be federally funded, and then did not provide the necessary funding for it, they are in violation of their own law. Can we say idiot a little bit louder now? Come on, I know you can do it.

In addition to violating the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution, it also violates the 10th Amendment, which clearly states power not delegated by the U.S. Constitution, nor prohibited by it, is reserved for the states.

Because there is nothing in the Constitution granting the power of the federal government over education, Congress has no right to mandate education. It is the right of the states. This violation of the Constitution and objection to the annual testing requirements has prompted
Connecticut to file suit against the U.S. Department of Education.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings called the lawsuit "un-American" and accused
Connecticut education officials of "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Ah, yes. When met with opposition, do what this administration always does, play the patriot card, and if you can, play the race card as well. Double whammy! Way to go, Spellings!

Other states have announced their intention to also file lawsuits objecting to the NCLB.

California's objection to NCLB is its mandate that students in English Learners be required to take the tests in English.

These students do not speak English as a first language, but are learning English. They are required to take the tests in English instead of their native language and are struggling with the language barrier, thus not performing well. Their schools are being labeled "low performing" as a result.

According to Christine Mahr of The Desert Sun, the California Association for Bilingual Education and Californians Together have joined the lawsuit.

"The groups say the testing of English learners in English violates No Child Left Behind, which says English learners should be tested in a 'valid and reliable' manner and in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on what students know and can do in academics," Mahr said.

Though this legislation seems on the surface to be a positive step toward progressive education, it is in reality an abuse of power by the federal government and an inept attempt to appear to be "doing something." The absurdity continues.

TOP OF PAGE

Schools are states' domain
Opinions by Margaret Dayton and Patti Harrington, Salt
Lake Tribune, 4/18/05
State Rep. Margaret Dayton is chairman of
Utah's House Education Committee. Dr. Patti Harrington is Utah School Superintendent.

When
Utah applied for statehood in 1894, it was required to include a plan for educating its citizens in its proposed state constitution. This requirement followed the tradition of all other sovereign states that had joined the union. Now, Utah is addressing the biggest education issue since statehood: Who controls Utah education?

Utah's recent legislative session delayed the final vote for a bill that would have Utah prioritize resources for state goals first and federal goals as it can afford to do so. The bill received unanimous approval in the state House and unanimous approval in a preliminary vote in the state Senate. Utah's governor requested that the final vote be delayed until April pending further negotiations with the U.S. Department of Education.

The United States Constitution, every state constitution and innumerable court decisions reserve authority for education to the states. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ignores that constitutional authority and seeks to impose hundreds of pages of federal regulation over
Utah's education system. These constitutional issues were even acknowledged in the federal law creating the Education Department. That law states "the establishment of the Department of Education shall not increase the authority of the federal government over education or diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the states... ."

Utahans do not believe that the one-size-fits-all approach under NCLB is appropriate. Utahans think it's inappropriately intrusive for the federal government to insert itself into contract negotiations between locally elected school boards and individual citizens as it tries to regulate teachers under NCLB. And Utahans do not believe that the approximately 6% of budget monies coming from the federal government should control 100% of state education policy. If the federal government desires to assist
Utah and other states, it should divide the $60 billion in federal education funding and return it to the states.

Much has been written about the funding problems and the inadequacies of NCLB. But the bigger issue that should alarm every American is one of constitutionality. This is not just a question of who should be involved in the classroom. This is a question of rights and responsibilities as defined in
Utah's constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

TOP OF PAGE

States hit back on school reform law
Connecticut, Utah, and Texas are either refusing to adopt all of the No Child Left Behind Act or suing the US to block it.
By Alexandra Marks, Christian Science Monitor Staff writer, 4/19/05

KILLINGWORTH, CONN. – An education rebellion is under way from Utah to Connecticut.

Three years after the passage of President Bush's controversial education reform known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the law is facing its most significant challenges yet - and they're coming in the courts, state legislatures, and local education departments.

Connecticut has announced it's suing the US Department of Education, claiming the law mandates changes without giving the funding to carry them out. The education commissioner in Texas unilaterally decided Washington's requirements were flawed, and she simply disregarded part of them - a kind of civil disobedience.

And Tuesday, Utah, the state that gave Mr. Bush his biggest win last November, is about to provide the most stinging rebuke yet to NCLB. In a special session, the state Senate is expected to pass overwhelmingly a bill to ensure that in a conflict between state and federal education regulations,
Utah's rules will trump Washington's dictates. The House has already passed the bill, and if the Senate does as well, Utah is putting at risk $120 million it receives in federal education aid.

"The paramount question is who runs this show: Is it state and local government or Washington?" says state Sen. Thomas Hatch (R). "Are we going to let the federal government contribute a very small percentage of the education budget and dictate what we can or cannot do, or are we going to maintain control at the local level?"

The local rebellions come on the heels of an announcement by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings that the department intends to exercise more flexibility than under her predecessor in addressing states' concerns about the law. NCLB requires annual testing in Grades 3 to 8 and sets out penalties for schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress." In making the announcement, however, Secretary Spellings said there were certain "bright lines of the statute," such as reporting annual testing results by student subgroups, that "are not up for negotiation." This led some frustrated state officials like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to refer to any new flexibility as "more rhetoric than reality."

Historically, there's always been tension between states and federal government on education reform. When President Clinton tried to implement new standards, he also met resistance, often from Democratic governors. Now Bush finds himself facing similar concerns from some Republican governors, including Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell.

Yet the heightened frustrations are also coming at a time when most states are reporting some success in raising test scores. While they insist that's in part because of state reforms put in place before NCLB became law, they do acknowledge it's had some positive effect.

"But they also see two big problems with the law: its rigid rules and lack of help for schools that have been identified as not doing well," says Jack Jennings, executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington, which has done the most extensive studies yet of the impact of NCLB. "The law is good at identifying them, but the money isn't there to help them."

That's
Connecticut's main concern. It contends that complying with NCLB's testing requirements would cost state taxpayers an additional $8 million annually.

For 20 years,
Connecticut has tested in the fourth, sixth, eighth, and 10th grades. Washington wants the state to add tests in the third, fifth, and seventh grades. The state says it would rather use the money to fund problem areas it has identified. "Our children are robbed of the resources they need ... to improve their classrooms and educations," says Mr. Blumenthal.

The state is also arguing that because
Washington is not providing enough money to implement its requirements, NCLB is essentially an unfunded mandate and this is in violation of its own law.

The US Department of Education counters that it has provided enough funds, noting that
Connecticut has received $750 million to implement NCLB.

Raymond Simon, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, says it's "disappointing" that
Connecticut chose a legal challenge. "The additional federal funds that have been given to the states have been sufficient and in record amounts," he says.

The department also points out that minorities score significantly lower than whites in the state, and it argues that NCLB could force improvement.

In
Texas, the concern is about the federal requirement that children with disabilities and those who are still learning English be tested using the same grade-level standards applied to others. With Spellings's announcement of more flexibility, 3 percent of students will be exempt from the grade-level tests - a percentage decided on by the department, based on nationwide averages. But Texas decided to exempt 9 percent, contending that including the scores of children with disabilities unfairly skews test results.

"In
Texas, it's just an out-and-out case of civil disobedience," says David Shreve, an education expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "They're saying it just doesn't work here, and we're not going to follow it."

The US Department of Education has given
Texas until the end of this week to come up with an alternative that will not exempt so many students. If it doesn't, Spellings has threatened to cut some of Texas' federal funds. Mr. Simon refused to comment on the Texas situation, saying instead he was waiting for its reply.

But he insists that NCLB is working and that this is no time to be talking about fundamental changes. "The achievement gap is narrowing and student achievement is up, so now is not the time to deviate from the mission to weaken or back down on the standards," he says. "We'll work with states to continue to make it less bureaucratic and easier for the states to accomplish the mission."

For their part, the states don't disagree with the law's fundamental mission, just the way the DOE is implementing it.

"NCLB is absolutely desirable in concept and goals. No one disagrees with its objectives," says Blumenthal of Connecticut. "It's the implementation that's so faulty - the one-size-fits-all approach and the inflexibility on unfunded mandates."

TOP OF PAGE

Teachers union, school districts sue over No Child Left Behind
Ben Feller, Associated Press
 
WASHINGTON -— The nation's largest teachers union and school districts in three states are launching a legal fight over No Child Left Behind, aiming to free schools from complying with any part of the education law not paid for by the federal government.
 
The lawsuit, expected to be filed today in the U.S. District Court for eastern
Michigan, is the most sweeping challenge to President Bush's signature education policy. The outcome would apply only to the districts involved but could have implications for all schools nationwide.
 
Leading the fight is the National Education Association, a union of 2.7 million members that represents many public educators and is financing the lawsuit. The other plaintiffs are nine school districts in
Michigan, Texas and Vermont, plus 10 NEA chapters in those three states and Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah.
 
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, as the chief officer of the agency that enforces the law, is the only defendant. The suit centers on a question that has overshadowed the law since Bush signed it in 2002: whether the president and Congress have provided enough money.
 
The challenge is built upon one paragraph in the law that says no state or school district can be forced to spend its money on expenses the federal government has not covered.
 
"What it means is just what it says — that you don't have to do anything this law requires unless you receive federal funds to do it,'' said NEA general counsel Bob Chanin.
 
"We want the Department of Education to simply do what Congress told it to do. There's a promise in that law, it's unambiguous, and it's not being complied with.''
 
The plaintiffs want a judge to order that states and schools don't have to spend their own money to pay for the law's expenses — and order the Education Department not to try to yank federal money from a state or school that refuses to comply based on those grounds.
 
Spending on No Child Left Behind programs has increased 40 percent since Bush took office, from $17.4 billion to $24.4 billion, federal figures show. The Bush administration has repeatedly said schools have enough money to make the law work.
 
Yet the suit accuses the government of shortchanging schools by at least $27 billion, the difference between the amount Congress authorized and what it has spent. The shortfall is even larger, the suit says, if the figures include all promised funding for poor children.
 
The suit, citing a series of cost studies, outlines billions of dollars in expenses to meet the law's mandates. They include the costs of adding yearly testing, getting all children up to grade level in reading and math, and ensuring teachers are highly qualified.
 
To cover those costs, the suit says, states have shifted money away from such other priorities as foreign languages, art and smaller classes. The money gap has hurt schools' ability to meet progress goals, which in turn has damaged their reputations, the suit says.
 
Plaintiffs include the
Pontiac School District in Michigan, the Laredo Independent School District in Laredo, Texas; the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vt.; and six of the school districts that are part of Rutland Northeast in south central Vermont.
 
The NEA promised to bring the suit almost two years ago and began recruiting states to be plaintiffs. But the union found no takers — in part because states had no firm cost estimates, and in part because states were wary of the political fallout of suing the federal government.
 
More than a dozen states, however, are considering anti-No Child Left Behind legislation this year. On Tuesday, the Utah Legislature passed a measure giving state education standards priority over federal ones imposed by No Child Left Behind.
 
The school districts involved in the lawsuit give the NEA the diversity it wanted, from rural
Vermont students to limited-English learners in Laredo to poor students in Pontiac. In the suit, Spellings is accused of violating both the education law and the spending clause of the U.S. Constitution.
 
The NEA and the Bush administration have had a testy relationship.
 
When the union first promised the lawsuit, then-Education Secretary Rod Paige accused the NEA of putting together a "coalition of the whining.'' He later referred to the NEA as a "terrorist organization'' for the way it opposed the law, a comment for which he later apologized.

TOP OF PAGE

Mixup kept district from getting mental health funds
BY FREDERIC J. FROMMER, AP, 4/22/05

WASHINGTON -- A missing signature disqualified a grant proposal for mental health and conflict resolution aid for the Minnesota school district where a student last month killed seven people, federal officials confirmed Thursday.

Last summer, the Beltrami Area Service Collaborative, which includes the Red Lake Indian Reservation and three other school districts in the state, applied for a three-year, $3 million Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant.

The Education Department rejected the application because one of the school districts had its business manager, rather than its superintendent, sign the paperwork.

The grant would have paid for services such as mental health, conflict resolution and substance abuse, said John Pugleasa, the collaborative's executive director.

In March, 16-year-old Jeff Weise shot to death a school security guard, five students and a teacher at Red Lake High School before killing himself. Earlier, Weise killed his grandfather and his grandfather's girlfriend at their home.

With the grants, Pugleasa said, ''perhaps we would have been better able to respond'' after the shootings.

TOP OF PAGE

Gov. Seeks More Charter Schools as the Key to Improving Education
By Erika Hayasaki,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, 4/22/05

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday that charter schools are key to improving education in
California and announced plans to make it easier for failing campuses to convert to charters.

Speaking at the opening of Accelerated Charter School's newly expanded 130,000-square-foot campus, Schwarzenegger called the school in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods "a great model, not only for schools in Los Angeles and California, but for the rest of the nation."

California Secretary of Education Richard Riordan, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer also attended the event, which celebrated the kindergarten- through-eighth-grade
South Los Angeles campus that also will serve high school students over the next two years.

Charter schools are publicly funded campuses free from many state regulations. They offer innovative curricula under a more stringent state accountability system.

With more than 500 charter schools in
California, Schwarzenegger said he plans to organize community coalitions to build additional charters "as fast as possible." He said he wants to help parents whose children attend state-monitored schools petition the state Board of Education for charter schools.

"Charter schools are pathfinders in education using new teaching methods, setting more guidelines and giving more choices to parents in our public schools," Schwarzenegger said.

As he called for more charters, some education leaders criticized the governor's decision to withhold $2 billion owed to schools under Proposition 98, money which also is intended to benefit charter campuses. "You can't praise charter schools and cut Prop. 98 at the same time because you will kill the charter schools who rely on Prop. 98," said L.A. Unified school board member David Tokofsky.

Caprice Young, executive director of the nonprofit California Charter Schools Assn., said charter campuses are underfunded, but praised the governor's support for the movement and noted that he vetoed legislation last year that would have eroded charters' flexibility.

The modern
Accelerated School campus, on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Main Street, includes 36 classrooms that will serve 1,050 students. It offers a rooftop basketball court and amphitheater, a library and community health center. Students learn in air-conditioned classrooms and have access to flat-screen computers. School officials plan a professional development center to train teachers and an early childhood development center.

Funding for the $50-million campus came from voter-approved school construction bonds, state grants, private donations and a $10-million grant from the Annenberg Foundation — the largest ever made to an L.A. Unified school.

The school sets high expectations for all of its students. Teachers are evaluated based on student performance. Parents and school staff members are deeply involved in curriculum implementation, campus governance and school decisions.

TOP OF PAGE

Illinois State Board of Education
100 North First Street
Springfield, IL 62777