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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – April 30 to May 6, 2005

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STATE
Teachers, governor at odds on retirement raises / Peoria Journal Star
Teachers: Madigan is holding up our future / Peoria Journal Star
Critics take cautious approach to governor's reform plan / Peoria Journal Star
‘Super Bus’ / State Journal-Register
Community collaborating on constructing, selling home to benefit Tri-City School District
State Journal-Register
Senate weighs scenarios for school-funding taxes / Chicago Tribune
A textbook diet / Chicago Tribune
Students rally for dropouts / Chicago Sun-Times
School bus shows latest safety features / Daily Herald
Real estate agents hear about U-46’s successes / Daily Herald

NATIONAL
'Growing pains' won't sidetrack No Child Left Behind / USA Today
States Legislators Group Calls for NCLB Overhaul / School Reform News
Evolution on trial as Kansas debates Adam vs Darwin / Boston Globe
Girls getting short end of high school sports seasons? / Chicago Sun-Times
Getting Smaller to Improve the Big Picture / New York Times
English teachers group criticizes SAT's new essay section / San Francisco Chronicle
NCLB Cases Face Hurdles in the Courts / Education Week
Schools subsist on junk food / Raleigh News & Observer (NC)
U.S. Won't Yield On Test Waiver / Hartford Courant (CT)
A school by any other name ... / Chicago Tribune
House restores vocational-ed money / Cleveland Plain Dealer
Judge blocks Md. school health program / Boston Globe
Elite School Will Expel AP Classes / Los Angeles Times

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STATE

Teachers, governor at odds on retirement raises
New proposal would cap pay bump from 20 percent to 3 percent for final two years of teaching
By Molly Parker, Peoria Journal Star, 5/1/05

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of several in-depth examinations of government pensions in Illinois. This three-part series focuses on the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, which represents the state's largest bloc of retirees. Future stories will look at judges, police officers, firefighters and other government employees. )

PEORIA - Ken Meischner started his teaching career at District 150 the year after he graduated college in 1971. His first paycheck after taxes for two weeks of work was only $204. His then 19-year-old brother bagging groceries part time at Kroger made more than him - with no college degree.

"I never once early in my career thought about the amount of money that I was paid," he said. "I got into education because I wanted to coach."

For the first 10 years of his career, Meischner also worked part time during the summer on construction and delivering wine, whiskey and beer to supplement his gross teaching salary that was only $6,700 the first year.

This will be the last year of teaching for both him and his wife, Mary. The two will retire at the top of the pay scale - making at least $86,000 each for their nine-month work year, according to salary information provided to the Journal Star by Peoria School District 150. (The district did not include all pensionable salary, such as reimbursement for unused sick leave or extra duties, despite the Freedom of Information request).

Those salaries reflect their education levels, years of service and the portion of the contractual agreement with the District 150 teachers' union that provides a 20 percent pay raise to qualified teachers during their final two teaching years. Each has a master's degree, plus 75 additional hours of classroom credit.

In retirement, they will likely receive the maximum 75 percent of the average of their final four years' salary - or roughly $64,500 apiece in yearly pension payments. That's more

than a working teacher with a master's degree and 20 years' experience currently would make at District 150. A beginning teacher just out of college makes about $30,000.

With already-locked-in adjustments for cost of living, the Meischners' pensions will be more than $85,000 each just over a decade from now.

Meischner, who teaches physical education at Manual High School, acknowledges that he and his wife will retire comfortably.

But he also worked hard to get this far and doesn't think the end-of-career pay raises - which have become a source of debate in Springfield - are out of line.

A Journal Star analysis of about 25 central Illinois schools found that the retirement bumps are the norm, rather than the exception, though they range from district to district in the percentage or dollar figure that's granted. The newspaper requested retirement data from Tri-County schools from 1999 to 2005.

The average teacher pension in the state is about $34,000, and teachers who retired from districts in Peoria, Woodford and Tazewell counties earned average yearly pensions below that, according to Illinois Teacher's Retirement System data, though some area administrators and teachers will retire with much healthier pensions. Teachers and administrators contribute 9 percent of their annual salary to TRS, though some districts make that contribution on behalf of employees on top of the pay scale.

While teachers are working, most of their salary is covered by local property taxes; once they retire, their pensions are covered by the state through TRS.

A recent independent analysis by TRS of 885 districts showed that more than 83 percent of those schools offer a retirement incentive. The end-of-career incentives across the state range from less than 1 percent to more than 100 percent during a four-year period, the study found, though the bulk of districts offer pay increases between 10 percent and 29 percent. TRS serves teachers and administrators outside the city of Chicago and represents the state's largest group of government retirees.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has recommended capping the increases at 3 percent yearly, and his appointed Governor's Pension Commission has recommended a 5 percent annual cap. Current law caps the pay increases at 20 percent yearly to apply toward pension payments in retirement, though that technically allows for compounded pay increases of more than 100 percent during a four-year period.

The debate

"Go and compare teacher salaries to the private sector - go to Caterpillar, for example - and look at someone with a master's and 35 years' experience and 75 additional classroom hours and compare the salaries of those people to a teacher at District 150 or any teacher," said Meischner, the grievance officer of Peoria Federation of Teachers Local 780. "And I think it's unfair to single out people in the education profession and say, 'God, they're making so much money getting those bumps.' I think that's unfair. I think that's very unfair."

Most area school administrators also oppose Blagojevich's plans to lower the current 20 percent cap on yearly pay increases, arguing the bumps encourage longtime teachers on the high end of the pay scale to retire, and that they can therefore be replaced with younger, less expensive teachers. Many of those same administrators also are eligible for retirement incentives and stand to lose under Blagojevich's plan.

The incentives, in many cases, are designed to keep teachers and administrators in the district until they reach either age 60 or have 34 years of educational service, as districts are otherwise required to pay an additional contribution to TRS for employees who retire early. The majority of retirement incentives are given only to employees who retire at the earliest possible date in which the district is not required to pay a financial penalty.

Because of this, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, also has stalled legislation that would extend the Early Retirement Option for school employees, which he said in a letter "artificially encourages school districts to inflate salaries at the end of careers as a means of keeping teachers from exercising the ERO option." Districts are required to pay a one-time lump sum to TRS for teachers with less than 34 years service who take the ERO.

But in several cases, there are no requirements for retirees to receive the pay increases. Education officials also have called the bumps poetic justice for the long hours educators put into the job for so little compensation.

"We have an outstanding staff that is dedicated to our kids and community, and teachers don't make very much money," said Kathy Hanneken, superintendent at Princeville Community Unit School District, of the cash retirement incentives her district offers with relatively few strings attached. "That is given both as an incentive and a reward for their commitment. I think you have to look at these incentives also as thank-yous. Teaching salaries may look nice at the end of the career, but it took them years to get there."

Pension peril

Blagojevich and other state leaders are concerned the state can no longer sustain its five pension systems - which fund retirements for teachers and administrators, state workers, judges, lawmakers and university employees - without a major tuning.

The governor set the stage for a fight over pension reform, including nixing lucrative end-of-year salary increases, in his February budget address.

"A local district is making decisions on salary increases and a number of other things that the state then has to pay for, even though the state is not part of those negotiations," state budget director John Filan said. "It's the state's responsibility to pay the bills, and yet we have no say in how the bills are being determined."

Once teachers are off districts' payrolls, the state picks up the tab for the pensions. This attributes to the push and pull between districts and the state, though either way, taxpayers are on the hook.

Barring any changes, the state must pay $2 billion to meet its pension obligations in the 2006 fiscal year, and would owe more than $15 billion by 2045. Blagojevich aides say his proposal would lower the required state contributions to the pension systems and free up $800 million for general services in next year's budget. But he has been roundly criticized for attempting to balance the budget on what some critics have called a risky scheme that assumes savings that would not be realized until years from now, and easily could be reversed by a new General Assembly.

The cap on pay increases would apply to all current and new employees. But other proposals Blagojevich has suggested would affect only new hires, including raising the retirement age, lowering cost of living adjustments in retirement, and eliminating a lucrative retirement plan for university employees. Any proposed changes would first require the approval of the Illinois General Assembly, which will likely take up the heated debate as session winds to a close in the next several months.

Local incentives

In percentage terms, Germantown Hills tops the charts locally with its 44 percent salary bump for teachers who provide a two-year notice of intent to retire, including contracted pay raises.

In 2002, a 60-year-old teacher with 37 years of teaching service retired with a final year's salary of about $79,000, which was nearly $30,000 more than that individual was making three years prior. But Superintendent Joe Stieglitz said those end-of-career raises - which can be received only if a teacher retires at the earliest possible date without a penalty to the district - pay for themselves within three years.

It allows the district to then hire younger teachers with less experience who therefore are lower on the pay scale. For example, a teacher with a master's degree and 34 years' experience plus 16 additional graduate hours makes a little more than $59,000 at Germantown Hills. A new teacher could be hired for a salary as low as $28,690.

"We look at it as a management tool," Stieglitz said. "It does allow us in the long run to save money. Yes, we're paying up front, but we're quickly reimbursed for that."

The retirement incentives vary throughout the area, though the majority survey offered a one-time 20 percent bump, such as is the case for teachers at Roanoke-Benson, Farmington, Pekin and Dunlap. Monroe in Bartonville offers 10 percent pay increases during each of a teacher's final two years, as does the East Peoria Elementary School District, which equals a 21 percent compounded pay raise in both cases.

Teachers in El Paso receive a compounded 32 percent pay raise over two years, and at Congerville-Eureka-Goodfield, teachers are eligible for 26 percent pay raises, also compounded, over two years. Peoria County's Pleasant Valley teachers are eligible for a compounded 33 percent total pay raise during the final three years. The contracts also vary in terms of the language and stipulations that make teachers eligible for the pay raises, including differences in the years a teacher must serve with the district and terms of when they must retire. Some of the contracts also allow for the reimbursement of sick leave that could make those raises even higher.

Only a few schools, including Central School District No. 51 in Washington and Illini Bluffs in Glasford, had no official retirement incentives, though superintendents in these districts said that in many cases, incentives are granted on a one-on-one negotiated basis with the districts' boards of education.

East Peoria Elementary School Superintendent Mike Burdette said he thinks Blagojevich must not be aware of the cost savings to the districts, which like TRS, also are funded by taxpayers' dollars.

"Districts who are doing this have made the decision on whether it's right or wrong to entice teachers to retire at a certain age and replace them with younger, less costly teachers. So it's a matter of reducing expenditures in salaries or reducing programs."

Since 1999, five teachers have retired in the East Peoria district with salaries above $90,000, and several others made at least $80,000 in retirement. One teacher, in fact, received a $38,000 raise in his final two years before retiring with a salary close to $100,000, but Burdette said that individual had picked up extra duties and worked the summer at the district's request. Other salaries may also reflect extra duties, he said.

But that's another sore spot with budget director Filan, who believes that education professionals are picking up extra duties simply to boost their retirement pay. Lifetime pensions are calculated using an average of the highest four years salary - which are typically the last four years - of a teacher or administrator's final decade of work.

"What happens is that these things tend to take place all of the sudden in the last four years," Filan said. "All of the sudden someone is assistant coaching when they weren't doing it for the first 20 years of their career. If they want to do that, that's fine, but it shouldn't be a vehicle to pass something on to the state."

Reverse mandate

Guy Cahill, District 150's comptroller and treasurer, said the end-of-career bumps also entice good teachers to stay with the district.

Cahill said he recognizes there are two different goals as to why districts offer retirement incentives, one being to entice employees to retire early in order to reduce payroll and the other being a incentive to retain employees who might otherwise seek employment at higher-paying districts, he said.

"The philosophy I have is that they're there to retain people because, though we may not be able to pay teachers a competitive wage, there is that incentive at the end of the career, on the state's dime more or less," he said, noting he's not in a position to comment on which goal best suits District 150.

"We can provide teachers things that we haven't been able to provide to you at this point in terms of building a retirement income."

Cahill called it a justified "reverse mandate" on the state, nothing that often it's lawmakers and the governor passing on unfunded mandates school districts can't afford.

"Yes, the teachers are off our payroll and we benefit from the decrease, but it also is a way to have the state pay for something that we couldn't otherwise afford," he said.

As for Meischner, he issued Blagojevich a challenge: Spend one day in his classroom and then decide whether teachers deserve retirement incentives for their hard work.

"I don't think the governor's ever sat behind a teacher's desk and ever run a classroom," he said. "Bring him in and let him run my class. I personally invite the governor to teach my class at Manual for a week or even a day. I honestly believe he would have a change of heart. I think he may suddenly realize, 'Oh my God, I now see what these poor people are dealing with.' "

He added: "I get disgusted when legislators start picking on educators."

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Teachers: Madigan is holding up our future
Illinois' top Democrat is hesitant to renew 'costly' early retirement option
By MOLLY PARKER, Peoria Journal Star, 5/2/05

Second of three parts

SPRINGFIELD - In former state Rep. Ricca Slone's campaign headquarters, it became a standing joke that her campaign manager would name his first-born child "ERO."

The child's namesake would be the Early Retirement Option, an initiative that allows teachers to retire a few years earlier and still claim their full pensions. But that option expires June 30 unless the General Assembly passes another version.

ERO renewal is a major push of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the largest financial backers of Slone's failed bid for re-election against District 150 School Board President Aaron Schock in November. In fact, Slone was wearing a large button on her shirt that read ERO the day she lost to Schock by fewer than 250 votes.

Renewing the ERO may be a failing mission itself - at least in its current form.

That campaign staffer's boss, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has claimed responsibility for holding up efforts to renew it. It's costing the state too much money, Madigan has said, and until a compromise is reached that shifts that burden to districts or retirees, teachers either will have to remain in the classroom a bit longer or retire without the maximum pension - 75 percent of a four-year salary average - if they choose to.

Recently, hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol to lobby for its renewal - along with other education measures they support. Among them was Joyce Francis, a reading specialist at District 150's Sterling Middle School.

She was planning on retiring in two years and had plans to move and start another career.

"It's not because I don't love what I do," she said from the Capitol lawn on a break from lobbying local lawmakers. "But I'm ready to go out and retire. The people ready to retire love their jobs, but they've already made plans."

In a standard letter sent to education officials inquiring about the status of ERO, Madigan writes, "I have given this matter serious consideration, and have concluded that as presently constituted, an extension of the ERO programs would not be in the best interest of the state of Illinois."

Because many lucrative end-of-year pay increases have been negotiated into teachers' contracts as a way to encourage them not to take the ERO, Madigan thinks the program "artificially encourages school districts to inflate salaries at the end of careers."
As Speaker, Madigan controls what legislation comes up for a vote in the House.

Schock is now co-sponsor of legislation to extend the retirement option.

How it works

Teachers who are 55 years old are eligible to retire under the Early Retirement Option. But so long as a teacher has less than 34 years of service, the district must pay a one-time lump sum determined by how close the retiree is to age 60. The cost is 20 percent of the teacher's final year salary for each year they are younger than 60.

That means, for example, if a 56-year-old teacher with 33 years of service opts to retire early, the district would have to pay a one-time penalty of 80 percent of the teacher's salary.

Teachers who are at least 55 and have 34 years of service can retire without a penalty to the district. Without the ERO, teachers can retire at age 62 with eight years of service, age 60 with 10 years of service and age 55 with 34 years of service.

To entice teachers to stay until they can retire without a financial penalty, many districts offer retirement incentives, such as 20 percent end-of-career raises, which generally cost much less for the district than paying the ERO penalty. The state then picks up the tab for the increased pension benefit for the rest of that employee's life.

"All of this happens," Madigan wrote, "because the current ERO program is unlike that of any other public pension program authorized under state law in the following respect: An employment contract is negotiated at the local level between the employee and the district, which determines the value of the employee's pension upon retirement, and the 'check' for the pension liability is sent on to the state, which is not a party to the negotiations."

In many cases, sick leave is also granted to retiring teachers to either boost pensions or allow them to retire earlier. The Teachers' Retirement System accepts up to two years of unused sick leave as earned teaching credit.

The Legislature created the Early Retirement Option for teachers in 1980, and it was meant at the time to give teachers parity with state and university employees, who had options such as "30 and out." The legislation must be renewed every five years, but it had been renewed without much fanfare until this most recent case.

Jon Bauman, director of the Teachers' Retirement System, said that ERO had been cost neutral for the state until only recently. Two things changed that, he said.

Hit one: In 1998, the General Assembly approved a formula change that increased the benefits of all teachers, but the amount that retirees and schools have to contribute for employees going out the door a bit early remained the same.

Hit two: The ERO was amended to allow retirees with 34 years of service to take the option without any contribution from either the retiree or the district. That meant the state would pick up the entire cost.

"Then the wheels really fell off the proverbial bus when the waiver of the contribution was enacted in 1999," he said.

"I think what happened at the time was that because the formula change was brand new, it was too early to see that there would be an actuarial impact on the system for ERO people and by the time those losses started turning up, the legislation had been passed and was on the books for a couple of years."

In Madigan's letter, he estimates that continuing the ERO in its current form would increase the state's unfunded liability by $870 million. "Again, that cost would be borne by state taxpayers, not the employees and school districts that are negotiating salaries and service credits at the end of a career."

Educators feel slighted

But teachers and administrators like Francis think Madigan is unfairly toying with their retirement plans.

"He's holding people's lives hostage," Francis said of the fact that Madigan has not yet let the measure come for a vote on the House floor.

If the state's going to do away with the ERO, it should at least be phased out so as not to affect teachers and administrators who have already begun planning their retirements, she said.

Also, many educators paid a large sum of their own money to be eligible to exercise the ERO. When the formula upgrade was enacted in 1999, employees had the option to remain covered by the old plan - which required a minimum 38 years of service to retire with full benefits - or to pay for the upgrade. And even though Francis paid thousands for the upgrade, that leaves no guarantee she can retire early without reduced benefits.

Illini Bluffs Superintendent Randy Stueve tells a similar story. He understands that budgets are tight from the state to the local level but also thinks retiring employees are being asked unfairly to pick up the slack for the Legislature's mistakes. For years, the state failed to make the appropriate payments to its pension systems, causing them to fall drastically behind even as pension sweeteners were added to the rolls. Stueve said he's not sure whether he will exercise the ERO. But as many other educators, he positioned himself to have the option if he chooses to.

"I did a lot of things purposefully, and I feel like I'm getting the rules changed on me," he said. "It concerns me, but hopefully, when this all shakes down, there will be some kind of compromise."

Madigan said he has advised the state's teachers' unions that any legislation extending the ERO must meet the following criteria before he will support it.

1: The cost of the ERO program, in terms of additional unfunded pension liability, must not be the responsibility of the state.

2: There must be reforms designed to limit the use of artificial end-of-career salary increases as bargaining chips in contract negotiations.

3: There must also be reforms with regard to the practice of awarding unearned sick days to increase pensions.

4. The contributions required for the purchase of additional service credits should be in line with that of state employees.

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Critics take cautious approach to governor's reform plan
Educators say Blagojevich is balancing budget on their backs
By MOLLY PARKER, Peoria Journal Star, 5/3/05

LAST OF THREE PARTS

PEORIA - Gov. Rod Blagojevich has a plan for reforming teacher pensions that he says will save millions - millions the state can begin spending to balance next year's budget.

That idea, says the head of the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, sounds more like it came from the mouth of a teenager.

"It's kind of like as if my 17-year-old daughter says to me, 'Dad, I might have a baby-sitting job a week from Tuesday, so could you give me 40 bucks now?'" TRS's Jon Bauman said. "It just never makes sense to spend money before you have it. And that, in effect, is what this is all about."

Blagojevich, in his February budget address, outlined numerous proposals for reforming the state's five pension systems, which provide retirement for teachers, judges, lawmakers and state and university employees. Most of those proposals would impact only new hires, meaning the largest portion of savings won't be realized until today's college graduates are readying to retire decades from now.

The TRS serves teachers and administrators outside the city of Chicago, and represents the state's largest block of government retirees.

If no reforms pass, the state will owe $2.6 billion to the pension systems, and the governor's proposal would put that payment at $1.8 billion, Blagojevich aides said. The state's total proposed budget for general services is about $43.5 billion.

"The thing is, it's not baby-sitting money," Bauman said. "It's billions of dollars at a real scarce time and it just seems to me we have to proceed with a great deal of caution."

Critics have charged that Blagojevich's proposals would net less than $100 million in savings for the 2006 fiscal year if all are passed, even though Blagojevich's office has proposed spending $800 million in pension savings.

But budget director John Filan said such criticisms are unfounded.

A budget can't be balanced by looking at only a one-year snapshot of finances, he said. Even the state's pension directors, like Bauman, base projections on actuarial figures, and when the total liability to the system is reduced, it's justified to spread those savings out.

"You have to balance the entire budget, from Medicaid to prisons to education. This is only one part of it," Filan said. "You have to look at the budget as a total and you have to figure out, 'How do you make these things fit?'"

Catching up

Since the 1970 Illinois Constitution was ratified and pensions became guaranteed, the state has failed to meet its funding obligations.

Faced with an exasperating problem, the General Assembly in 1995 passed a 50-year funding plan with the goal of catching up payments by 2045, but the systems were continually shortchanged, and the state was behind $43 billion by the end of the 2003 fiscal year, said budget spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

That year, Blagojevich issued a $10 billion bond in an attempt to begin to dig the state out of a deepening hole. The pension systems are now $35 billion short, she said.

Filan said that investment coupled with Blagojevich's proposed changes to the pension systems would reduce costs of the plan by $157 billion from now until 2045.

"Gov. Blagojevich has proposed the first major reforms in pensions in my lifetime," Filan said. "This is a structural problem with the state, and if we don't do something about it, it will get worse every year. It will eat up money for education and health care until we have no more for anything but pensions."

But one of the concerns for Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, the ranking Republican on the Senate's pension commission, is that many of these proposals - if passed into law - could easily be overturned by a new sitting General Assembly and governor.

Since payments would be lowered and assumed savings already spent, that would further compound the pension funding situation, he said.

"My biggest fear is this has all been a sham for the governor to bail out his spending problems," said Brady, a gubernatorial hopeful. "It's just another example of these guys using Enron-style accounting to make up for their shortfalls."

Not their fault?

Educators, most of whom oppose the governor's pension-saving proposals, also have taken issue with the way in which Blagojevich plans to spend the money. They feel the governor is balancing the budget on their backs.

"My concern is, you can't balance a budget or retirement incentive on teachers that are going to retire 35 years from now. By reducing benefits now for teachers retiring 35 years later is not going to help it right now," said East Peoria Elementary School Superintendent Mike Burdette.

"I guess I don't understand that philosophy. It just doesn't make sense to me; it sounds like they're spending on a ghost budget."

Nationally, Illinois ranks dead last compared to other states in terms of the ratio between the portion of the pension systems that are funded compared to that which is not. But that dismal placement isn't teachers' fault, said Dave Comerford, spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

"The lack of adequate financing caused this problem," Comerford said. "It's not anything teachers have done, and it's not the benefits. They're trying to make excuses now because of the Legislature's screwup for not making those payments. Now they're looking for teachers to pay for mistakes the legislators made, and it's a huge sore spot."

Both the IFT and the Illinois Education Association have been engaged in intense lobbying efforts. In fact, Careen Gordon, a Coal City Democrat, said she believes the IEA refused to endorse her in last November's election because she would not commit to voting against Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan for House Speaker. Madigan has held up efforts to extend the Early Retirement Option, a costly state program that allows teachers to retire earlier than they would otherwise be able to without a reduced pension. She, however, supports extension of the ERO.

"When I sat down for the interview, the very first question I was asked was 'Are you voting for Mike Madigan for Speaker?' I was somewhat sarcastic. My response was 'Who else is running?'"

Local versus state

The proposed reforms have created a push and pull between the teachers and school districts and the state. And Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, is caught somewhere in the middle of it all as both a state representative who ran his campaign on a theme of financial responsibility and the president of the Peoria District 150 School Board.

He has signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation that would extend the ERO - projected to increase the unfunded liability of the pension systems by $870 billion - but said he did so knowing that Madigan would not call the legislation as currently drafted for a vote on the House floor.

Schock said he would support Madigan's stipulation that some of the costs of the program be shifted to local school districts, so long as the Legislature also drafts similar rules to apply to Chicago teachers who have their own retirement fund.

But districts that are completely opposed to reforms, such as capping lucrative end-of-career pay increases they see as a cost-savings to them, are making a shortsighted argument, he said.

"I do believe that it's shortsighted to think that school districts aren't paying for that," Schock said, "because they are indirectly when it comes out of new education money for districts."

His main concern is that the governor's proposals, if passed, be phased in so as not to impact current negotiations between teachers' unions and boards of educations that could otherwise leave districts financially on the hook for costly pension benefits.

"The problem with that is the governor's attempting to change the rules in the middle of the game," he said. "Districts need to have all the cards in their hands when they go to the bargaining table."

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‘Super Bus’
Porta School District is first in Illinois to receive Saf-T-Liner C2
By ANN GORMAN, State Journal-Register Correspondent, 5/2/05

PETERSBURG - Fourth-grader Kory Bliven is impressed with the new bus that began shuttling him to and from Tallula Grade School this week.

“It has pearl-white floors and tinted windows,” Kory said. “It’s fun to ride and really smooth.”

“I like how it looks - the lights and stuff. It’s tall, like a tour bus,” agreed Corbin Heder, adding that his older brother, Blaine, wishes he could ride on it.

Niko Codeiko, a first-grader at Petersburg Elementary School, noticed that the seats on No. 16 are different from his old bus and that there’s a camera on board.

“It’s really cool,” he said.

Porta is the first school district in Illinois to receive the Saf-T-Liner C2 school bus, manufactured by Thomas Built Buses. Representatives of Ponder Equipment Co. of Litchfield recently turned over the keys of the C2 to Porta transportation director Mike Stier.

The students aren’t the only ones who are enthused.

“I think it’s super. I’ve got to get acquainted with it, but it’s a great bus,” said Richard Stout, who began driving a regular school bus route in 2001.

Rich Pherigo, Porta’s bus mechanic and driver, said the vehicle is designed for safety and comfort, with more space between the seats and more headroom.

It also features a large, one-piece windshield, along with larger side windows.

“It’s a lot nicer for the students, and the driver has more visibility all around the bus,” Pherigo said.

The C2 also is driver-friendly, Pherigo said, in that all the operational devices are within easy reach. And the door opens with the push of a button, rather than a manual lever, which frees up space in the entry.

The bus is not equipped with passenger seat belts, but Pherigo thinks that’s a good thing.

“Seat belts on a bus are a detriment,” Pherigo said. The compartmentalization created by the padded, high-back bench seats already is designed to protect passengers, he said, and it would be difficult for drivers to ensure that students are strapped in correctly and stay that way.

“It’d be hard to patrol it,” Pherigo said.

“The school bus already is the safest form of transportation in the nation, and the C2 elevates those standards,” Stier said.

The Porta district operates 18 routes with 21 vehicles, transporting 1,123 students to school each day.

Stier said the district’s buses are on a five-year rotation for replacement, and the new one actually was scheduled for delivery last fall. However, those plans were postponed because the manufacture wanted to “perfect its product,” he said.

Stier had a hand in that process himself, when he and others joined in Indianapolis last year to ride in and drive a prototype. Stier said it’s apparent a great deal of research went into the development of the state-of-the-art bus.

“They (Thomas) made some modifications based on input from operators and those who work on the buses,” he said. “A lot of consideration was given to the safety of kids and to the drivers. It’s an excellent product.”

Ponder general manager Del Anderson said in a press release that the delivery was the result of “years of product development.” Ponder is a dealer for Thomas Built Buses, a subsidiary of Freightliner LLC, the leading manufacturer of school buses in North America.

Porta is on tap to receive three more C2s this spring and another four this summer.

All of the older models in the fleet eventually will be phased out and replaced with the modern version.

Stier said the cost of the new equipment is in line with what’s been spent by the district in the past.

Thomas wants to hear the “good, bad and indifferent” comments about the bus now that it’s on the road.

“We’ll be keeping a log, so they can make the appropriate corrections, if needed,” Stier said.

Pherigo said the vehicle is environmentally efficient and he doesn’t expect it to be any harder to maintain than the rest of the fleet.

Trisha Bagby, who also attends Tallula Grade School, has no complaints about the new bus.

“It’s so much roomier inside - it’s awesome,” she said.

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Community collaborating on constructing, selling home to benefit Tri-City School District
By DEBRA LANDIS, State Journal-Register Correspondent, 5/3/05

BUFFALO - Residents of the Tri-City School District are building a house on a 2-acre lot, with proceeds from the sale to support the local school system.

“This says a lot about the community pride this district has. It’s exciting to see this come together,” said School Superintendent Jack Magruder.

Ground recently was broken for the 2,000-square-foot house in the new Griffith’s Creek Estates subdivision in Mechanicsburg. The house is expected to be completed this summer.

Donations, volunteer labor, and sales of construction materials at cost are making the project possible, according to Brenda and Ron Hannel of Dawson. The Hannels are among the organizers of the foundation and fund-raising project.

“The Realtor is even donating the percentage (of the house sale),” Ron Hannel said.

The ranch-style house includes a brick front, three bedrooms, 21/2 baths, a large living room, den, kitchen, three-car garage and patio.

Griffith’s Creek Estates spans 400 acres of land annexed into Mechanicsburg, which, along with Dawson and Buffalo, make up the Tri-City School District.

School districts increasingly have begun to develop education foundations to support activities not covered by regular budgets.

Members of the Tri-City Pride Athletic Boosters Club helped organize the Tri-City Education Foundation. The foundation has a temporary board of directors and will eventually have a larger board, Brenda Hannel said.

Magruder said pride in strong schools rather than talk earlier this school year of consolidation of the Tri-City and Riverton school districts played the largest role in the development of the education foundation.

A study by two education professors at the University of Illinois at Springfield recommended the merger of the Tri-City and Riverton school districts. Officials said neither district is pursuing a merger.

The Tri-City district spans about 100 square miles. Established in 1938, it was the first community unit school district to form in Illinois, Magruder said.

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Senate weighs scenarios for school-funding taxes
By Diane Rado, Chicago, Tribune staff reporter, 5/4/05

Homeowners would see a 30 percent reduction in their property taxes and renters would get an income tax credit under the latest proposals being discussed in Springfield to overhaul how Illinois pays for public schools.

While an increase in the state income tax to 5 percent from 3 percent remains a key part of the controversial overhaul, senators involved in school finance discussions are backing off a plan to expand the state's sales tax to services ranging from dry cleaning to haircuts.

Many Republican senators opposed the sales tax expansion, adding another hurdle for supporters to overcome if they hope to override an expected governor's veto.

"Everybody knows that compromise must happen," said Sen. James Meeks (I-Chicago), the chief sponsor of legislation to raise the state income tax and reduce property taxes, which are now heavily relied on to pay for schools. The bill is pending in the Senate.

Educators agree that the current system creates disparities between wealthy and poor school districts and shortchanges disadvantaged children. But a solution has been politically unfeasible, with little willingness on the part of politicians to raise income taxes that would help offset those disparities.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich also opposes increasing the state's income tax. He has proposed expanding gambling to raise more money for schools next year.

But under the leadership of Senate President Emil Jones, the state Senate is pushing forward with a school finance overhaul. Critics of the measure say that raising the state income tax rate to 5 percent would mean a 66 percent increase in taxes owed.

To soften the impact of that tax increase, Meeks originally proposed a 20 percent reduction in the school portion of most homeowners' property tax bills. The state would pick up that portion of the bill and distribute the money to elementary, high school and K-12 unit school districts, as well as community college districts.

Wealthier taxpayers, however, would still see a net increase in their total property and income taxes, and Meeks acknowledged that renters would take a big hit under the proposal because their income tax increase would not be offset by a property tax reduction.

Meeks is working on a proposal to give an income tax credit to renters who earn $35,000 or less. The amount of the credit is under discussion.

The same proposal would give homeowners a 30 percent, rather than a 20 percent, reduction in the school portion of their property tax bills. Meeks said he hopes a new version of the legislation will be completed by the end of the week.

Overall, the new version is expected to raise $5.8 billion, which would allow the state to raise basic state aid per student by more than $1,000, Meeks said. Several hundred million dollars also would go to the state's universities and community colleges, under the proposals being discussed.

Meeks said he is working on the new legislation with Sen. Rick Winkel (R-Champaign), who also has proposed a bill to overhaul school finances, and Sen. Miguel del Valle, (D-Chicago), the co-chairman of a special Senate committee considering school finance reform.

The new discussions have not persuaded the governor to retreat from his opposition to raising taxes, said Elliot Regenstein, Blagojevich's chief education aide. The governor would veto a bill that increases the tax burden on Illinois residents, Regenstein said.

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A textbook diet
Chicago Tribune Editorial, 5/4/05

In 2002, California decided to limit the weight of textbooks, after reports that kids were suffering back injuries from lugging heavy backpacks to school. The state later decreed that texts for kindergarten through 4th grade shouldn't tip the scales at more than 3 pounds, and 5 pounds for high schoolers.

Since that law passed, two things have become clear: First, even the heaviest of textbooks typically already meets those standards. Second, this is a problem best solved locally, by publishers, parents, school officials and teachers. There's no need for a state edict.

Unfortunately, Illinois seems not to have heeded that lesson.

The Illinois Senate voted recently to order the State Board of Education to develop weight standards for school textbooks by the middle of 2006. The measure now goes to the House. This bill is little more than political grandstanding and deserves to fail.
That isn't to make light of kids' back injuries or to discourage parents and schools from confronting an important issue. But taking sole aim at the heft of books is misguided. The problem, as any teacher or parent can tell you, isn't just books but all the other accouterments of modern youth--iPods, liter soda bottles, clothing changes, etc.--crammed into backpacks.

By now parents should be well aware of the dangers of overloading a backpack. In 2002, about 21,000 people, mostly youngsters, were treated in hospitals or doctors' offices for injuries related to backpacks, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. But that's not only back strain caused by the heavy backpacks. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that an overloaded backpack wielded by a hurrying child can be dangerous. A 2003 study in the journal Pediatrics asserted that most children's acute backpack-related injuries were not back strains, but cuts and sprains from tripping over or getting hit by a backpack.

So how to reasonably reduce the weight of books in backpacks? Some of the more creative solutions mentioned in the California guidelines are already appearing. Some publishers provide CD-ROM copies of textbooks, for instance. Some schools use the Internet to help students reduce the number of books they must lug home. Schools in north suburban Lake Forest provide duplicate textbooks in classrooms. Some parents buy such duplicates to keep at home. Other schools have organized teachers to coordinate testing dates so students aren't as likely to have to carry several textbooks home on the same night.

There are other options, including breaking texts into more than one volume. All of these solutions carry costs and benefits that are best evaluated by local schools. They don't require cumbersome state intervention.

Some officials have suggested, lamely, that the real problem is that textbooks contain too much information. But texts are heavy because of ever-greater curriculum demands and increasing achievement standards imposed by state and federal law. There's nothing wrong with that. A text should be judged by its quality, not its weight.

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Students rally for dropouts
Chicago Sun-Times, 5/5/05

About 1,000 high school dropouts who re-enrolled in alternative schools rallied in front of the State of Illinois Building Wednesday on behalf of the thousands of kids who are still out of school. In Illinois, more than 186,000 16- to 24-year-old high school dropouts are not in school -- a group large enough to make up the state's second-biggest city. The students called for increased funding for dropouts and in support of a statewide task force on high school dropouts.

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School bus shows latest safety features
Touring vehicle truly is a mobile classroom
By Jill Jedlowski, Daily Herald Staff Writer, 5/5/05

It’s the only school bus in the country with brains, and it can track a driver’s nearly every move.

Laidlaw’s Friendship 1 safety bus made its Naperville debut Wednesday at the company’s corporate headquarters. The specialized vehicle was built as a traveling showcase for the latest in transportation technology.

The $400,000 bus — an average school bus costs $85,000 — will make its way around the country, stopping at school districts and community events.

Aware Vehicle Intelligence eventually will be available for retrofitting on most existing school buses built since 1995. Laidlaw’s safety bus is the only one offering the revolutionary safety device, which links a vehicle’s electrical system to a computer, on brand new models.

A Global Positioning System sensor sits atop the bus, and the brains of the equipment are located at the rear of the vehicle, inside the frame.

The device allows every move of the bus to be permanently tracked, said Robert Pudlewski, vice president of procurement and maintenance. For example, it can be set so a manager is alerted if a bus exceeds, say, 40 mph.

Aware Vehicle Intelligence is less Big Brother and more about keeping students and drivers safe, Pudlewski said. It captures evidence that may be helpful to a driver.

“It serves as a beneficial tool in helping drivers to defend themselves,” he said.

Friendship 1 also features a stop arm and Child Check-Mate — both standard on all Laidlaw buses. The latter is a system that reminds drivers to check for sleeping children at the end of every trip.

Ketan Jahagirdar, a parent and Laidlaw’s director for application development and support, said he was impressed with all the available features. Anything that enhances safety is an improvement, he said.

“The key thing is what the future of technology is going to play in terms of wireless activity, GPS and safety,” said Jahagirdar, who was among the dozens of employees who toured the bus this week.

Another device, DriveCam, has a 360-degree view from the windshield. It records on a loop. All a driver has to do is hit a button, and the previous 10 seconds and subsequent 10 seconds will be saved, Pudlewski said. That feature is particularly handy if, for example, a car unlawfully passes a stopped bus.

The bus also functions as a mobile classroom, with 12 auditorium-style swivel seats and computer touch-screens for video tutorials.

Laidlaw is the country’s largest private contractor of student transportation with more than 40,000 school buses.

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Real estate agents hear about U-46’s successes
By Tara Malone, Daily Herald Staff Writer, 5/5/05

Location, location, location may be the mantra driving home sales across the Chicago suburbs. But school district, school district, school district could be a fitting chorus.

Schools — and just as importantly, perceptions of schools — top the list of factors determining a home’s value, real estate experts and economists agree.

With that in mind, Elgin Area School District U-46 leaders met Wednesday with nearly 50 area real estate agents, their ambassadors to potential home buyers in the district.

“We want to have each of you help tell our story,” Superintendent Connie Neale told the group gathered in U-46’s new South Elgin High.

It’s the story of Illinois’ second-largest school district that halved a $40 million deficit in a year, earning state acclaim along the way.

It’s the story of a district that grew by 10,000 students in a decade, spending about $500śmillion during the same time span to build 16 schools and renovate countless others.

It’s the story of a district that boasts the 2004 Illinois Teacher of the Year, Deb Perryman, and Linda Figgins, who won a 2004 Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching.

“If someone new is moving into our community and wants to know about U-46,” Neale said, “I think that demonstrates the breadth of where and how students can excel.”

Families scouring the area for homes typically come with two questions, Bartlett Realtor Kate Donoghue said: How big are class sizes? And what school will my child attend?

So, too, do many ask about an effort to carve away Bartlett and much of U-46’s southeast corner to create a smaller district, an idea backed by a majority of Bartlett, Carol Stream and Wayne during an advisory referendum in November.

“People will ask if it’s really going to happen,” Donoghue said. “If it does, I tell them, it’ll be years, long after your kids are through.”

Controversy stirred by the disconnection campaign and threats of a discrimination lawsuit levied by a group of Elgin parents last year could slow the influx of families expected to U-46, so cautioned the district’s demographer consultant in September.

Since then, three Latino families filed federal charges of racial bias against the district, alleging minority students who are new to English do not receive an education equal to their white classmates.

Yet Elgin Councilwoman and Elgin Realtor Brenda Rodgers said she has not seen that deter families from buying homes in U-46.

“What I generally say to people is I’m a product of U-46,” said Rodgers, an Elgin High graduate. “I’m very proud of that.”

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NATIONAL

'Growing pains' won't sidetrack No Child Left Behind
Opinion by Margaret Spellings, USA Today, 5/1/05

Three years ago, the stars aligned: The American people decided it was finally time to reform our public schools. Parents demanded accountability, taxpayers demanded value, businesses needed better-educated employees and children stuck in poor-performing schools needed change. The message was heard at the highest levels of government. And the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was born.

As any mom can tell you, a surprising amount of progress is made in the first three years of life: from learning to crawl all the way to learning a language. Like a child, this law has accomplished a lot in three short years. All 50 states now have accountability plans in place that have laid the foundation for continuous school improvement and student achievement from year to year. The groundwork is set — and rapid progress is being made.

Some states, however, are experiencing growing pains. A few states in particular are testing boundaries, trying to see how far they can stray from the law without getting grounded and losing federal funds. Utah's Legislature has passed a law that may conflict with NCLB: It wants to continue to receive federal dollars while not following the law — specifically leaving some children behind. But this action could put more than $75 million in federal funds at risk. And Connecticut is seeking to file a lawsuit so it can continue to receive federal dollars for annual student testing without — you guessed it — testing all students every year.

A must: 'Real annual progress'

I have pledged to take a common-sense approach to the implementation of No Child Left Behind, allowing flexibility where possible and necessary. But this approach is conditioned on one overriding factor: ensuring that real annual progress is made toward getting every single child to read and do math at grade level. The only way to achieve that goal is to adhere to the law's bright lines of annual testing and breakdown of data by student subgroups. Without that information, parents will not know how their children are doing, and educators won't know what to adjust to best help their students. Quite simply, what gets measured, gets done.

But some don't want to reform. For example, the National Education Association (NEA) has tossed its lawyers into the ring, suing the Department of Education under the ironic premise that No Child Left Behind is forcing school districts to spend too much on education. After lobbying for nearly two years to find at least one state willing to sue, the NEA has finally settled on a handful of school districts.

It is interesting to note that six of the nine districts in the suit successfully met their accountability targets under the law — goals that are set by the state, not the federal government — and the ninth district in the suit apparently received no rating whatsoever. In other words, students have already benefited and their education is improving, thanks to the law. In addition, almost every district in the lawsuit has seen its federal funds increase significantly since NCLB was passed — one as high as 300%.

Despite claims to the contrary by special-interest groups that will never be satisfied with the amount spent on public education, the No Child Left Behind law is not financially burdensome. Several reputable studies, including one by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have found that the law is funded and is not a mandate. Most of the objections to the law have focused on the testing provisions, but most states already have the testing infrastructure in place. The bipartisan passage of the law was accompanied by a significant increase in federal spending, 40% during the past three years, to cover these and other costs.

As a nation, we spend more than $530 billion for K-12 education, which is more than the gross domestic product of Russia. Of that amount, less than 1% is devoted to student assessment.

In spite of a few state politicians who insist it can't be done, teachers and students in classrooms across America say it can. This is a case of show and tell: Student achievement is up under NCLB, and the nation's stubborn achievement gap is finally starting to close. Our children and teachers are meeting the high expectations we've set.

Here we go again

It is worth noting that this has happened before — some states have chosen not to take part in federal education programs. For example, New Mexico opted out of the Education of the Handicapped Act (now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) for six years. As a result, the state forfeited about $23 million in federal funds for its disabled children. And five states initially chose not to participate in 1994's education reform act, called Goals 2000.

Is national school reform easy? No — nobody ever said it would be. Never before have we, or any other nation, attempted to give every single child — regardless of his or her background, skin color or neighborhood — a quality education.

The contrary actions of a couple of states and one teachers lobby do not constitute a "grass-roots rebellion." The bottom line is that most respected, national education organizations are working with us to continue the unprecedented national progress that No Child Left Behind has begun. I will continue to partner with them and look forward to the day when all groups can put politics aside and focus on helping society's most vulnerable children receive the education that a nation such as ours is certainly capable of providing.

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States Legislators Group Calls for NCLB Overhaul
By Neal P. McCluskey, The Heartland Institute, 5/1/05

In late February, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) issued a report challenging the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), strongly questioning its constitutionality and many of its provisions.

In the report, NCSL--a bipartisan organization that provides state legislators across the country with research and opportunities to discuss common issues--laid out the final findings of its NCLB task force. Task force members attended seven regional meetings across the country and listened to testimony from more than 60 witnesses in reaching their conclusions about NCLB's impact.

"We believe the federal government's role has become excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education," task force co-chair and New York State Sen. Steve Saland (R-Poughkeepsie) said in a news release accompanying the report. "States that were once pioneers are now captives of a one-size-fits-all educational accountability system."

Constitutionality Questioned

The report started by examining NCLB's constitutionality, finding that although the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment leaves authority over education to the states, some federal activity is legitimate under the Constitution's spending clause, which enables the federal government to attach rules and regulations to money it sends to states.

That power is constrained, though, by requirements laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in South Dakota v. Dole (1987), the report noted. For instance, spending-clause programs must promote the "general welfare" and be national in scope.

The task force found that although NCLB met the general-welfare and national-scope requirements, it failed to meet three others: that the law not be in conflict with "other constitutional provisions" (NCSL maintains NCLB violates the 10th Amendment); that it be "unambiguous" about conditions linked to funding; and that it persuade states to participate rather than coerce them.

Though the report stopped short of identifying all federal education interventions as unconstitutional, David Shreve, senior director of NCSL's Education Labor and Workforce Development Committee, said some task force members advocated total federal withdrawal from public education. He said overall, though, the consensus was federal policymakers had "overreached" their authority. Shreve also suggested some members felt federal "influence should be commensurate with funding," on which Washington has fallen far short, in their view.

Adequate Yearly Progress Questioned

Following its constitutionality discussion, the report examined NCLB's adequate yearly progress (AYP) provisions, which require states to set annual targets for the percentage of students who achieve proficiency on state math, reading, and, in the future, science tests. The increases must be achieved within states' entire student populations each year, and by several student subsets--including children with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. In addition, no less than 95 percent of a population or subset can take the test for it to count.

The task force determined NCLB is too inflexible about AYP, saying it "holds schools to overly prescriptive expectations, does not acknowledge differences in individual performance, does not recognize significant academic progress because it relies on absolute achievement targets, and inappropriately increases the likelihood of failure for diverse schools."

Similarly, the task force found the proficiency goals for students with disabilities and limited mastery of the English language were "unrealistic."

The report said states should be given significantly greater latitude in setting AYP goals. For instance, they should be allowed to use "multiple measures in addition to standardized tests" to determine AYP, and to set for themselves the percentage of special education students who can be exempted from AYP calculations.

Flexibility Called For

The task force exhorted federal policymakers to give states greater flexibility in dealing with "unique schools and districts," such as urban and rural districts, and in setting teacher qualification standards. Among its recommendations, the task force suggested states be given flexibility in determining when and how to provide supplemental services and school choice to students in schools that fail to meet AYP.

The report also argued NCLB's "highly qualified" teacher standards are too strict, especially the requirement that middle and high school teachers prove they are highly qualified in every subject they teach. NCSL recommended teachers should have to pass only a single evaluation, not one for each subject they teach.

In response to questions about flexibility, officials at the U.S. Department of Education pointed to Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Ray Simons' February 23 statement about the NCSL report, in which he promised "the Department will continue to work with every state to address their concerns," while adding NCSL's "report could be interpreted as wanting to reverse the progress we've made" in improving student achievement.

Funding Inequities Noted

The NCSL task force report also tackled funding questions, finding that although federal elementary and secondary education outlays increased by nearly $10 billion in the first three years following NCLB's passage, "for some states, the new funding may barely cover the costs; for other states the new costs exceed the additional funding by a significant margin."

The task force recommended Congress ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the costs of complying with NCLB, peg funding to cost estimates, and let states choose not to participate without losing funding for programs not integral to NCLB, like technology programs or those for safe and drug-free schools.

U.S. House Committee on Education and Workforce spokesman Josh Holly said the NCSL report's demands made it appear states want "a blank check" from the federal government. Holly noted both Democratic and Republican leaders oppose amending the law before the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, scheduled for 2007, likely ruling out the possibility that statutory changes might come soon.

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Evolution on trial as Kansas debates Adam vs Darwin
By Carey Gillam, Reuters, 5/2/05

TOPEKA, Kan. - Evolution is going on trial in Kansas.

Eighty years after a famed courtroom battle in Tennessee pitted religious beliefs about the origins of life against the theories of British scientist Charles Darwin, Kansas is holding its own hearings on what school children should be taught about how life on Earth began.

The Kansas Board of Education has scheduled six days of courtroom-style hearings to begin on Thursday in the capitol Topeka. More than two dozen witnesses will give testimony and be subject to cross-examination, with the majority expected to argue against teaching evolution.

Many prominent U.S. scientific groups have denounced the debate as founded on fallacy and have promised to boycott the hearings, which opponents say are part of a larger nationwide effort by religious interests to gain control over government.

"I feel like I'm in a time warp here," said Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray who has agreed to defend evolution as valid science. "To debate evolution is similar to debating whether the Earth is round. It is an absurd proposition."

WIDESPREAD DEBATE

Irigonegaray's opponent will be attorney John Calvert, managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, a Kansas organization that argues the Earth was created through intentional design rather than random organism evolution.

The group is one of many that have been formed over the last several years to challenge the validity of evolutionary concepts and seek to open the schoolroom door to ideas that humans and other living creatures are too intricately designed to have come about randomly.

While many call themselves creationists, who believe that God was the ultimate designer of all life, they are stopping short of saying creationism should be taught in schools.

"We're not against evolution," said Calvert. "But there is a lot of evidence that suggests that life is the product of intelligence. I think it is inappropriate for the state to prejudge the question whether we are the product of design or just an occurrence."

Debates over evolution are currently being waged in more than a dozen states, including Texas where one bill would allowing for creationism to be taught alongside evolution.

Kansas has been grappling with the issue for years, garnering worldwide attention in 1999 when the state school board voted to downplay evolution in science classes.

Subsequent elections altered the membership of the school board and led to renewed backing for evolution instruction in 2001. But elections last year gave religious conservatives a 6-4 majority and the board is now finalizing new science standards, which will guide teachers about how and what to teach students.

The current proposal pushed by conservatives would not eliminate evolution entirely from instruction, nor would it require creationism be taught, but it would encourage teachers to discuss various viewpoints and eliminate core evolution claims as required curriculum.

School board member Sue Gamble, who describes herself as a moderate, said she will not attend the hearings, which she calls "a farce." She said the argument over evolution is part of a larger agenda by Christian conservatives to gradually alter the legal and social landscape in the United States.

"I think it is a desire by a minority... to establish a theocracy, both within Kansas and growing to a national level," Gamble said.

OLD TESTAMENT TEACHINGS

Some evolution detractors say that the belief that humans, animals and organisms evolved over long spans of time is inconsistent with Biblical teachings that life was created by God. The Bible's Old Testament says that God created life on Earth including the first humans, Adam and Eve, in six days.

Detractors also argue that evolution is invalid science because it cannot be tested or verified and say it is inappropriately being indoctrinated into education and discouraging consideration of alternatives.

But defenders say that evolution is not totally inconsistent with Biblical beliefs, and it provides a foundational concept for understanding many areas of science, including genetics and molecular biology.

The theory of evolution came to prominence in 1859 when Darwin published "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," and it was the subject of a 1925 trial in Tennessee in which teacher John Thomas Scopes was accused of violating a ban against teaching evolution.

Kansas School Board chairman Steve Abrams said the hearings are less about religion than they are about seeking the best possible education for the state's children.

"If students... do not understand the weaknesses of evolutionary theory as well as the strengths, a grave injustice is being done to them," Abrams said.

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Girls getting short end of high school sports seasons?
BY HOPE YEN, AP, 5/3/05

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court told a lower court Monday to reconsider whether Michigan high schools discriminated against female athletes by scheduling their basketball and volleyball seasons during nontraditional times of the year.

Justices set aside the lower court's ruling for the female athletes. That decision found a violation of the Constitution's equal protection clause and ordered the Michigan High School Athletic Association to revamp its scheduling so that girls' teams played during their typical sport seasons -- just like the boys' teams.

The Supreme Court asked the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take a second look at the case in light of the high court's ruling last month in Rancho Palos Verdes vs. Abrams, which bars certain lawsuits when a different portion of federal law provides a remedy.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association said the lawsuit should have been brought under the Title IX gender equity law, a question that the 6th Circuit did not address.

Timing is unfair

The case stems from a 1998 lawsuit filed by Diane Madsen and Jay Roberts-Eveland, both Grand Rapids, Mich. area mothers of female athletes, in conjunction with the legal group Communities for Equity.

They challenged Michigan's practice of scheduling high school girls' basketball in the fall and volleyball in the winter, the opposite of when colleges play those sports. They said the timing is unfair because it limits the Michigan girls' exposure and hurts their chances of winning college athletic scholarships.

Michigan is the only state that plays girls' volleyball in the winter, and one of two states to play girls basketball outside of winter. Hawaii girls also play in the spring.

Turmoil and burdens

The Michigan athletic association countered that its unique scheduling boosts participation in girls' athletics and gives girls' teams greater exposure because they don't have to compete for attention with boys' games.

Two Michigan lower courts disagreed. They reasoned that the athletic association's reasons for its scheduling practices weren't ''exceedingly persuasive.''

In its appeal, the Michigan athletic association argued the lower ruling will create turmoil and burdens for academic institutions nationwide if they are forced to provide scheduling for girls' sports that exactly mirrors the boys' teams.

In addition to basketball and volleyball, Michigan would have to rejigger its golf, tennis and soccer seasons for this fall to make scheduling more equitable for both the boys' and girls' teams if the lower ruling stands.

For instance, girls' golf is currently scheduled for the traditional spring season. In Michigan, fall is considered the superior golf season, and that's when the boys play.

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Getting Smaller to Improve the Big Picture
By ELISSA GOOTMAN and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN, New York Times, 5/3/05

The Central Park East Secondary School, one of New York City's first small public high schools, was once a beacon of educational innovation. But in the two decades since it opened, the graduation and attendance rates have plummeted to below citywide averages.

Even the founding principal has not visited in years, saying she finds the school's fate heartbreaking.

In Chelsea, the New York City Museum School, another pioneering small school, is thriving, even as it struggles with financial difficulties. Students there make regular pilgrimages to museums throughout the city, though they spend less time on such trips than they did a few years ago.

One of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's chief strategies for transforming the city's school system is the creation of 200 small schools, including 53 secondary schools that opened in September. But the idea is not new - there was an explosion of such schools in the early 1990's - and a look at this older generation of small schools shows that size itself has not been a silver bullet.

There has been no long-term comprehensive study of the outcomes of New York City's early small schools. But interviews with teachers, current and former principals and parents indicate a wide range of results and suggest that even the hallmarks of small schools - better attendance and graduation rates - are not guaranteed.

"If I look at the small schools that existed at that time, about half are mediocre or worse than mediocre, and half are better than mediocre," said Deborah Meier, the founding principal of Central Park East, who is now an author, lecturer and consultant.

Some of the small schools fell victim to their own success, like Beacon High School on the West Side, which, with more than 1,000 students, is no longer so small. Some reaped praise for years, only to struggle when their founders were replaced by administrators who did not quite get the school's mission.

In some cases, partnerships with community organizations fell apart. In others, the private money that helped get special programs off the ground dried up, forcing cutbacks.

These varying outcomes - including the experiences of some small schools that had to be closed - offer cautionary lessons that some of the most vocal champions of small schools say have not been heeded by officials leading the current initiative.

"Every school reform comes as if it has no history," Ms. Meier said. "We just recycle a previous reform package, we give it a slightly different name, sometimes not even a different name, and we don't go back to look at what happened the last time we did this."

Still, officials working on the current initiative say that a vast majority of old small schools, if not ideal, are better than the large failing ones now being replaced. At the big schools being transformed into small school campuses, four-year graduation rates for the class of 2002 ranged from 23 percent at Bushwick High School, in Brooklyn. to 46 percent at South Bronx High School. Citywide, the average was 51 percent.

In endorsing small schools, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein have cited a wide body of research and local statistics showing that smaller schools yield higher attendance, promotion and graduation rates. But the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has financed hundreds of small schools across the country in recent years, has found some of the academic results disappointing.

Michele Cahill, a chief architect of Mr. Bloomberg's small schools plan, said that she and other city education officials had taken steps to ensure that the new schools would fare better - by improving principal training, requiring rigorous curriculums, demanding high-quality teaching, building stronger community partnerships and imposing strict accountability measures.

"We're doing it differently," Ms. Cahill said.

Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit education reform group that has been at the forefront of New York City's small-schools effort for more than 15 years, said that the early small schools suffered from inconsistent support. Among past chancellors, Joseph A. Fernandez and Ramon C. Cortines were cautious supporters, while Rudy Crew was a vocal skeptic.

This time, the city has created a special Office of New Schools, headed by a chief executive, Kristen Kane, who reports directly to the chancellor.

But critics say much remains the same. The city's earliest small school efforts included several ill-fated attempts to break up large, dysfunctional high schools, a precursor to many of the troubles that the Bloomberg administration has faced in its own effort to phase out big schools over the last two years.

In 1994, for instance, the city turned Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn into three schools. All were placed on the state's list of failing schools and are now being phased out for poor performance.

At the four small schools created in 1994 to replace Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, four-year graduation rates now range from 53.8 percent, about the same as the citywide average, to a more impressive 75.5 percent.

Research by, among others, Jacqueline Ancess of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University's Teachers College, found that small schools suffered when forced to take root in large school buildings, alongside other schools with conflicting cultures and incompatible approaches to learning.

Commenting on the current effort, Dr. Ancess said she has been dismayed to see small schools crippled by their placement in buildings with metal detectors and a strong police presence. "When they're put in a building with a school that has an antithetical culture," she said, "this is a recipe for failure."

Some successful small schools were forced to grow over time or to take on a different mix of students, defeating their original purpose. In 1993, for instance, Beacon High School opened as a college preparatory program, intended for a mix of students with varying abilities. Enrollment was supposed to be capped at 500.

But it quickly became one of Manhattan's most popular schools. To get in, many top students exercised a special provision in city admissions rules granting them automatic seats. Over time the school swelled to more than double its originally intended size, and this year officials formally switched it to a "screened" program, meaning that only top students are admitted.

Middle College High School, on the campus of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, had a similar experience. The school, which opened in 1993, was supposed to have 640 students. It now has nearly 1,000, and its schoolyard is filled with portable classrooms.

The school was designed to provide an intensive academic program for college-bound students. But last September, the central administration sent more than 100 of the city's lowest-performing students to the school without any extra support.

Still, some small schools have experienced far worse problems. The Local 1199 School for Social Change opened in 1993 in partnership with the hospital workers union, was so troubled that it had to be shut down. The union and New Visions for Public Schools, which helped create the school, had clashed with education officials, including Chancellor Crew, over staffing, admissions and other issues.

In Brooklyn, Metropolitan Corporate Academy's partnership with the investment bank Goldman Sachs was of no help this school year, when the computer lab and the boys' bathroom were in such disrepair that they had to be closed temporarily.

Another issue raised by the early small schools was how to define "small." Experts still disagree.

Some of New York's earlier small schools with the best results had 200 or fewer students. But the majority of new small schools will eventually serve more than 400 students - 108 per grade.

The Humanities Preparatory Academy, which enrolled its first students in 1993, has only 185 students, all of whom can cram into a single large classroom for special occasions, like a recent awards ceremony in which students were lauded for such attributes as "commitment to humanity." During staff meetings, the principal, Vincent P. Brevetti, and the school's 18 teachers sit in a circle, deciding policies by consensus - something that would be difficult with a larger group.

One common thread among the more successful early small schools is a core theme or mission. International High School in Long Island City, Queens, which opened in 1985, has enjoyed consistent success, focusing closely on serving recent immigrants. The school, which was intended for 460 students, has a student body of 468.

Another example of success is the Museum School. Shortly after it opened in 1994, The New York Times reported that it "could become the theme school par excellence," and in many ways it is.

After lessons on Darwinism that incorporated trips to the American Museum of Natural History, Devenia Brathwaite, 18, who said she hated biology in middle school, decided she wanted to major in it in college. Laura Fearon, 18, who said she was failing at the huge Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, transferred to Museum, and credits its intimate environment with her subsequent success.

"Your teacher knows you," she said.

One March afternoon, a group of students boarded the subway for the Brooklyn Museum, where they pondered Buddha sculptures, Last Supper paintings and Muslim prayer rugs as part of a lesson on world religions.

But in recent years the school has wrestled with difficulties that are emblematic of other small schools' struggles. Museum's founding co-directors were both hired away to help create and support other small schools, resulting in a rocky transition.

Then there was a reliance on outside money and resources. Just as today's small schools are opening in partnership with nonprofit groups, like the College Board and the Roundabout Theater Company, the Museum School teamed up with several museums. Now that the school is no longer new, it receives less attention from the museums, some of which are helping newer small schools.

"It takes real work to not only establish a new institution, but to maintain the institution," said Pat Conway, a parent. "The Department of Education doesn't seem to be learning from the experience of having dealt with our schools and learned that it really is more expensive to run a small school than a large school."

Still, if every new small school were like the Museum School, parents would almost certainly be pleased.

The same cannot be said, however, of Central Park East Secondary.

"One by one, various quality-control issues at the school became harder to uphold," Ms. Meier, the founding principal, said, citing increased enrollment, the departure of experienced teachers and the watering-down of special programs in reaction to a greater emphasis on standardized testing.

"I stopped visiting," she said. "It was too painful."

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English teachers group criticizes SAT's new essay section
Michael Dobbs, Washington Post, 5/4/05

A professional organization representing 60,000 teachers of English criticized the new essay portion of the SAT as a poor predictor of how well students will perform in college and expressed concern that it could encourage mediocre, formulaic writing.

The report by the National Council of Teachers of English comes as half a million students prepare to take the SAT this weekend. The standardized test, part of the entrance requirements for many colleges, was expanded this year to include a writing and essay section in response to criticism from leading educators -- notably Richard Atkinson, former president of the University of California -- that it was too narrow in scope and discriminated against minority students.

"The skills that are needed to do well on this test represent a very narrow range of the skills that students will need to do well in the marketplace," said Robert Yagelski, a professor of English education at the State University of New York at Albany and chairman of the task force that drew up the report.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, attacked the report as elitist. College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti noted that six of seven members of the task force are college professors rather than high school English teachers.

"It is very condescending," Coletti said, arguing that the new SAT will help focus attention on writing skills in the "many classrooms in this country where very little writing is taught."

The writing portion of the SAT, administered for the first time last month, consists of multiple-choice grammar and comprehension sections, as well as a 25-minute essay. Students are required to write about a general theme, such as the advantages and disadvantages of secrecy, drawing on examples from literature or history or their personal experience.

The College Board maintains that the new SAT will provide college admissions counselors with an independently authenticated sample of a student's writing to supplement other pieces of writing, including the personal essay that often accompanies a college application. Critics say the test will not encourage good writing because it allows little time for either revision or careful preparation.

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NCLB Cases Face Hurdles in the Courts
Suits Focus on Law's Language on Funding
By Caroline Hendrie, Education Week, 5/4/05

When cobbling together the landmark No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, Congress quietly tacked on an unusual provision that says the law does not require states or school districts “to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act.”

Little noticed at the time and lifted directly from an earlier version of the law enacted in 1994, the clause was originally pushed by Republican legislators wary of federal intrusion into schools by the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton.

In a historical twist, the language has now become the main legal weapon brandished by those hoping to prove in the courts that the Republican administration of President Bush has overstepped its authority in carrying out the law he championed.

“This whole situation is replete with irony,” said William Galston, who was a top domestic-policy aide to President Clinton and is now the interim dean of the University of Maryland’s school of public policy.

Whatever the political ironies of its origins, the provision has emerged as the mainstay of a high-profile legal challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act spearheaded by the National Education Association, and a similar lawsuit that the state of Connecticut has said it intends to file shortly.

At the heart of both disputes is a fairly straightforward argument: Washington is breaching its promise not to make the No Child Left Behind Act an “unfunded mandate.” But whether Washington actually made that promise, and whether it is now being broken, may prove anything but straightforward in a court of law.

If either or both cases go anywhere, though, the price tag of complying with the far-reaching law is likely to be a critical question. That means an issue that has become a staple of the highly charged political and policy debate over the law may get hashed out in the legal arena as well.

“If this case does nothing else, it will at least allow us to have an objective forum to decide which statements are correct—our statements that say it is underfunded or the Department of Education’s that says that it’s adequately funded,” said Robert H. Chanin, a Washington lawyer who is the general counsel of the 2.7 million-member NEA.

Cost Concerns Mount

The legal action against the Bush administration’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act comes as complaints about the costs of complying with the 3-year-old law are mounting.

A revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the law requires states to set up school accountability systems tied to standards-based tests and imposes new teacher-quality standards, among other mandates. It also sets up progressive consequences for schools and districts that fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward a goal of having all students achieve academic proficiency in core subjects by the 2013-14 school year.

Most money under the law comes from the federal Title I program for disadvantaged children. Although Title I funding has climbed from $10.3 billion in fiscal 2002 to $12.7 billion this fiscal year, critics contend that the increase does not cover the costs of meeting the law’s mandates, and that states and districts, therefore, are having to spend their own money to do so.

At the crux of both the NEA suit and Connecticut’s expected challenge is the claim that such state and local spending runs afoul of the law’s “unfunded mandate” clause.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the clause was put into three major education bills enacted in 1994. They were the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and the Improving America’s Schools Act, a five-year reauthorization of the ESEA from which the language was carried over into the No Child Left Behind law.

The provision states: “Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the federal government to mandate, direct, or control a state, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction, or allocation of state or local resources, or mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act.”

“Congress said this is not an unfunded mandate,” Mr. Chanin said, “but that word doesn’t seem to have gotten through to the Department of Education.”

Unfunded Mandate?

Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal, a Democrat, made a similar argument in announcing his plan to sue last month. He said the state would need to spend $8 million by 2008 to comply with the testing requirements of the law. ("Connecticut Pledges First State Legal Challenge to NCLB Law," April 13, 2005.)

That spending, he contended, represents “an illegal, unconscionable unfunded mandate.”

Connecticut and the NEA concede that under court rulings interpreting the spending clause in Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, Congress is allowed to attach certain conditions to federal funding.

Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that such conditions must be clear to recipients upfront, however, they argue that by effectively requiring additional state and local spending, the administration is going back on one of the conditions under which states took the money—the unfunded-mandate clause of the NCLB law itself.

“The states and districts have a right to rely on the conditions that Congress set forth for participation in the program,” Mr. Chanin said.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department said last week that the agency would not discuss legal details of the NEA case or Connecticut’s expected challenge. But both the department and its allies have often stressed that states that don’t like the requirements of the law are free to avoid them by simply turning down the funding.

“No state is compelled to take this money,” said Brian W. Jones, who stepped down as the department’s general counsel in January. “What the union and the state of Connecticut are basically doing is putting their hand out to the federal taxpayer and saying, ‘Put up and butt out.’ ”

Neither the department nor its supporters concedes that the government is requiring states and districts to spend money above what they are getting from Washington. Among other evidence, they point to studies by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, that found NCLB funding to be keeping pace with the cost of compliance.

But even if extra spending were needed, they say, the larger point is that states can walk away.

As David M. Schnittger, the spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee, put it: “The clause is trumped by the basic, more obvious fact that no state is required to accept the funding that triggers the requirements in the first place.”

States Weigh Action

Whether a judge ever gets to ponder the merits of such arguments remains to be seen.

Some legal experts say the NEA suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, may not get past square one because of procedural questions, including whether the national teachers’ union and several state affiliates have the legal standing to bring such a case.

Joining the union’s suit are the districts of Pontiac, Mich.; Laredo, Texas; and a cluster of tiny rural districts outside Rutland, Vt. ("Union, States Wage Frontal Attack on NCLB," April 27, 2005.)

Some see those districts’ legal footing as more solid than the union’s, but perhaps not as strong as that of individual states, which are the direct recipients of federal funds under the law and the front-line targets of most of its requirements.

After first announcing its intention to challenge the No Child Left Behind Act in court in 2003, the NEA unsuccessfully sought states willing to join such a case.

One was Connecticut, which decided to move ahead without the union. Connecticut’s suit is expected to focus heavily on the costs of expanding the state’s testing program, which now assesses students every other year, to meet the federal law’s mandate to test annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. As of late last week, Mr. Blumenthal was still trying to recruit other states to join his suit, which he had not yet filed.

Another state that has talked with the NEA is Maine, which has been gathering data about the costs of complying with the law in anticipation of a possible lawsuit. The Democratic-controlled legislature is considering a bill to authorize such action. And last week, Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, said he wanted his state’s attorney general to consider legal action over the federal law.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Attorney General Peggy A. Lautenschlager said last week that her office was “communicating with Connecticut with regard to its complaint.” A year ago, she wrote an advisory legal opinion concluding that her state was being illegally required to spend much more to comply with the NCLB law than it was getting from Washington.

Unlike in Connecticut, though, Ms.Lautenschlager said she would need the governor, the legislature, or the state superintendent of public instruction to ask her to take legal action, and “to date, we have not had that request.”

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Schools subsist on junk food
Opinion by DENNIS ROGERS, Raleigh News & Observer Staff Writer, 5/4/05

Listening to politicians talk about students pounding down potato chips and soft drinks at school is like listening to pimps complain that prostitution is ruining the neighborhood.

What did leaders expect when they allowed the health of children to be traded to soft-drink and junk food purveyors in exchange for 30 pieces of silver? Did they believe students would choose carrot sticks over cookies or milk over Mountain Dew?

They're kids. They're too immature to make their own decisions. They need someone to do their heavy thinking for them. That's us.

The legislature is considering banning the sale of sugary soft drinks in middle schools, limiting how many sweetened drinks could be sold in a machine, requiring the sale of bottled water and setting nutritional standards. Good start, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.

Kids need to be lined up like convicts at lunch -- the judicious use of cattle prods should do the trick -- and marched through the cafeteria line. Who cares if they don't like it? It's a school lunch. They're not supposed to like it. They're supposed to shut up and eat it.

I don't blame kids. Given a choice between a bag of crunchy munchies and the lunchroom mystery meat of yore, most of us would jump for the junk, too.

That's why trained professionals, not kids, should be making school lunch decisions. Letting them eat what they want instead of what's good for them has led to a generation of spoiled fat kids waddling down school halls on a permanent sugar high.

But don't hold your breath waiting for school administrators to admit that they should never have allowed junk food on campuses. Wake schools receive more than $1 million a year from soft drink sales. Kickbacks of that magnitude can make rationalizations easy to spout.

It would be unfair to blame all school officials for this mess. Broughton High School Principal Diane Payne kicked soft drinks off her campus last year. By comparison, Clayton High School pocketed $32,000 a year from soft drink and junk food sales. School administrators say they need the money to pay for programs not covered by state and county budget allocations. No doubt they do, but is this the way?

Let's also save some of our switches for those who are ultimately responsible for schools swapping our kids' health for large payoffs from junk food companies.

That would be you. And me.

We've whined about taxes to the point that letting kids slam down soft drinks and junk food at lunch is the only way some gun-shy school administrators can think of to get the money they need to educate our kids.

Taxpayers should be eager to pay for an excellent school system. Lunchrooms should offer only healthful food and do it for free. Students should have no choice in the matter, except for perhaps broccoli vs. cauliflower. Parents should demand that all vending machines be removed from schools.

Otherwise, if profit and letting kids make their own decisions are more important than nutrition, why stop at soft drinks and junk food? I'll bet kids today would really go for, say, beer, cigarettes and video poker.

Think of the profits!

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U.S. Won't Yield On Test Waiver
Education Commissioner Also Denies More Money
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer, 5/5/05

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings faxed her final answer to the state Department of Education Wednesday denying the commissioner's request for a waiver on adding three additional grades to the state's testing schedule beginning next year.

She also rejected the state's quest for more money to pay for the additional Connecticut Mastery Tests, asserting that Connecticut's test goes beyond the requirements of the federal law. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, she said, does not require states to test writing, which is expensive to score because it cannot be done by computer.

The mastery tests are now administered to grades 4, 6 and 8 and the federal law requires that grades 3, 5 and 7 be added. State officials have been asking for relief for weeks, saying the additional tests will cost $8 million more over the next two years alone.

The letter arrived in Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg's office as she and the state board of education were meeting with state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal about Blumenthal's plan to sue the federal government for money to pay for the tests.

State officials scoffed at the idea of dropping the writing portion of the test.

"We will absolutely not drop writing," Sternberg said, noting that the federal law requests tests for reading and math and leaves the third subject on the test to the discretion of the states.

"We chose writing. We think writing is essential," she said. And dropping it "sends a signal that writing is not important. What you have on the test, teachers attend to. If it's not on the test, then teachers don't attend to it."

Federal officials have also suggested that the state reformulate its test to use all multiple choice questions that can be scored by a computer, said board Chairman Allan B. Taylor. "We don't want to dumb down our test. ... I don't think that's what Congress wanted."

In her letter, Spellings also suggested that the state can redirect some of its federal funds to help pay for the tests. The suggestion isn't helpful, Taylor said. "Taking from one pocket and putting it in another doesn't help us very much."

Blumenthal also took a dim view of the suggestion. "I believe that diverting dollars from other federal education programs is illogical and the unfunded mandates are illegal," he said in a statement later in the day. "I am fully committed to court action necessary to force the federal government to follow the law - an express provision that bans unfunded mandates."

Board members got their first look at Spellings' letter as they left their closed-door meeting with Blumenthal. In that private meeting, the board peppered the attorney general with questions about the legal theory that allows Connecticut to sue and what other states are doing, Taylor said. Also board members wanted to know "if we can sue the federal government for unfunded mandates, why can't all the towns sue the state for unfunded mandates?" Taylor said.

Blumenthal told the board that the No Child Left Behind Act includes unique, specific language that prohibits mandates that are not fully funded. State legislation also prohibits complying with any mandates under the federal law that are not funded by the federal government.

In their private meeting with Blumenthal, members also asked why Blumenthal announced his intention to sue the government in a press conference before speaking with the board. Board member Patricia Luke then asked the question in public.

"The public had a right to know the state was contemplating this action," said Blumenthal, who has not yet filed suit.

"So you felt the need to announce it before you felt the need to discuss it" with the board, Luke asked.

"It would be in the public one way or another. I wanted to give the most complete explanation," said Blumenthal, who did discuss the possibility of a suit with Sternberg before making his announcement.

Blumenthal told the board that it does not have to endorse the lawsuit or agree to be named as the plaintiff for him to proceed. Still, he said, "your support sends a message. And under state statute, you have a responsibility to fight an unfunded mandate."

The board did not take any action on the proposed lawsuit, but Taylor said the board will vote on the matter at a special meeting or at its June meeting. He said he cannot predict how the vote will go. "We could vote to endorse it or we could vote to authorize a suit in our name," he said.

Taylor expressed his own inclination toward joining Blumenthal. "I don't have a visceral reaction against suing," he said. "We've reached an impasse."

Blumenthal, too, said he thought the state exhausted all options other than a lawsuit. "We are at a defining moment in this issue with the federal government."

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A school by any other name ...
Even presidents aren't a safe bet
By Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, 5/5/05

Naming a school can be a tricky business. Once, it seemed easy: Pick a famous American -- U.S. presidents were always winners -- and you were in business. Even a regional or local hero would do. Now it can be more complicated.

In Berkeley, Calif., the community at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School has been debating whether to change the name because Jefferson was a slave owner, a motivation that has sparked other school name changes across the country. And not just history drives name changes. In a few counties in Florida, school boards have discussed selling naming rights to schools as a way to generate revenue, but none has done so -- yet.

Still, more K-12 schools in the United States have been named for presidents than anybody else, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington.

Lincoln tops the name list, with 683 schools emblazoned with the 16th president's name. The name of Washington is next, with 618, but some of those are for the first president, George, and others for educator Booker T. Washington. There are 270 Roosevelts, four of them for Eleanor and the others for Teddy and FDR.

Forty-seven schools are named for civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., though 349 schools have the name of some other "King," including Admiral King High School in Lorain, Ohio, which was named after famed naval leader and native son Ernest Joseph King.

There are 488 schools with "Jefferson" in their name, 237 with "Madison" (though they are not all named for President James Madison), 202 with "Kennedy" and 43 schools with "Bush" -- including one in Texas named for the current president's mother, Barbara -- though none listed by the center is named for President Bush or his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

People from other walks of life have been honored: Albert Einstein, at five schools; Columbus, at 89. There are 76 named for Lafayette, the French general who helped the American colonies become independent; 37 Crocketts, with most in Texas, named for frontiersman Davy; 27 for migrant farm leader Cesar Chavez; and two for suffragist Susan B. Anthony.

Fifty-two schools are named for Horace Mann, often called the father of public education. In the 1800s, he led the Common School Movement, which aimed to give every child a basic education for free, funded by local taxes.

More names can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics: www.nces.ed.gov /ccd/schoolsearch.

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House restores vocational-ed money
White House wanted to kill popular program
Jim Abrams, Associated Press-Washington, 5/5/05

Rejecting one of President Bush's budget proposals, the Republican-led House voted Wednesday to renew until 2011 a vocational education program the White House wanted to kill.

With the 416-9 vote, the House approved spending $1.3 billion for the Perkins Act in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and outlined changes in the popular program for the first time since 1998.

Democrats joined Republicans in praising the program as crucial in helping youth and adults gain the technical skills needed for jobs or postsecondary education.

But they also expressed concern that budget constraints imposed by the administration would mean that Congress would have to take money from other education programs to finance Perkins.

President Bush, in his budget proposal this year, recommended terminating vocational education and other education programs deemed ineffective and "unable to demonstrate results."

But Rep. John Boehner, Republican of West Chester, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, noted that the Perkins program is "wildly popular with members on both sides of the aisle" and said he had no doubt that the money authorized in the bill "will in fact happen."

The Senate in March approved a similar bill on a 99-0 vote. Ohio's House members all voted for the bill except Democrat Sherrod Brown of Lorain, who did not vote.

The two measures will have to be reconciled.

Almost half of high school students and about one-third of college students make vocational programs a major part of their studies.

States would have to create model sequences of coordinated high school and college courses and performance goals would be set similar to those used under the No Child Left Behind law.

It would combine funding for Perkins state grants and the Tech-Prep programs that provide math and science courses to help students in the transition from high school to vocational college programs.

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Judge blocks Md. school health program
By Stephen Manning, Associated Press Writer, 5/5/05††

GREENBELT, Md. -- A federal judge on Thursday blocked a county school system from instituting a health curriculum that includes discussions of homosexuality.

U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams agreed with two groups that sued contending such discussions gave preference of religions that are tolerant of homosexuality over those that reject it.

Williams issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the Montgomery County school system in suburban Washington, D.C., from using the pilot health program in six schools. The program was set to begin Monday.

During the 10-day restraining order, another hearing will be held on whether to extend it, according to the judge's decision.

Williams said the curriculum juxtaposes faiths such as Quakers that support full rights for gays and lesbians with groups such as Baptists, who are painted as "intolerant and Biblically misguided."

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday by Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, a group comprising mostly parents, and the Virginia-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays.

School board president Patricia O'Neill said she was disappointed by the judge's decision but that the district would pursue its case in court.

The curriculum was to be used in eighth and 10th grades to teach students about the dangers of unprotected sex and about human sexuality. The 10th-grade class included a video discussing abstinence and a segment where a woman puts a condom on a cucumber to demonstrate its use.

Parents can opt out of the curriculum by signing a form, school system attorney Judith Bresler said while arguing the case. Blocking the curriculum would hurt only the students who agreed to take part, she said.

Erik Stanley, an attorney for the groups that filed suit, said the curriculum excludes the viewpoints of former gays and those who believe that "same-sex attraction can be overcome."

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Elite School Will Expel AP Classes
Crossroads in Santa Monica joins a growing movement against the college-level courses. It plans to develop more challenging studies.
By Mitchell Landsberg and Rachana Rathi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers, 5/5/05

Crossroads School in Santa Monica, which prides itself on offering an independent, progressive-minded curriculum, plans to join a growing list of elite private high schools that have stopped providing Advanced Placement courses, opting instead to develop its own college-level classes.

The decision, announced to parents and faculty this week, puts Crossroads in the forefront of a small but gathering backlash against AP classes by educators who say they find the curriculum limiting and unimaginative. The change is scheduled to take effect in the 2007-08 school year.

"Crossroads and its faculty prefer courses that prepare students to be reflective, analytical and ongoing learners," Headmaster Roger Weaver wrote in a letter to parents. "Classes geared to a specific, externally designed test do not best achieve this objective."

Advanced Placement courses, begun half a century ago to allow academically advanced high school students to earn college credits, have exploded in popularity and importance in recent years. Now offered in more than 14,000 high schools nationwide, they have become almost a requirement for students applying to the most selective colleges.

The courses are designed to prepare students to take AP exams offered by the College Board, which also administers the SAT, the best-known college entrance exam.

Although a declining number of colleges grant full credit for the classes, they are viewed as a demonstration that students can perform at the collegiate level. Moreover, they can bump up a student's grade point average, because colleges give an extra point to grades earned in AP classes. This has led to the phenomenon of students earning a grade point average that is higher than 4 on a 4-point scale.

The classes have also drifted to the center of a national debate over educational equity. Inner-city schools, where students tend to be black and Latino, are far less likely than suburban schools to offer a full range of AP courses, and grass-roots movements have sprung up in many cities, including Los Angeles, to demand them.

In an interview, Weaver took pains not to criticize those who champion the AP curriculum.

"Our decision is not a decision about whether the AP is a good thing or a bad thing," he said. "It's about whether the AP is the right thing for our school."

But he also quoted critics who have said the AP courses are "a mile wide and an inch deep" and discourage a more thorough, critical examination of a subject.

Students and administrators at some schools agreed, applauding Crossroads' decision.

"Honestly, I don't feel like I learned a lot from my AP classes," said Beejoli Shah, a senior at Whitney High School in Cerritos, a public school that is consistently ranked among the best in the country. She said she had taken six AP classes.

"I just feel like it was a lot of material crammed into eight months as opposed to the full school year of 10 months," said Shah, who plans to attend UC Berkeley in the fall.

She said she took fewer AP classes than many of her classmates. "And there are people who buy a book and start studying a month before the exam. It's not a good judge of how much you've learned in an entire year."

Mary Johnson, assistant principal at San Marino High School, called Crossroads' decision courageous, but added that it was easier for a private school to abandon Advanced Placement courses.

"In public schools, we're dealing with a much larger public," she said. "And in some cases, it's a public that values the AP above all. They've really bought the idea that this is the thing to prepare their kids for college."

Johnson said there has been widespread discussion by high school counselors, college admissions officials and the College Board about what purpose the AP program serves, particularly because many universities no longer offer college credit for AP tests.

She said she doubted that many schools would follow Crossroads' lead.

"But," she said, "I tell you, you get enough high-profile private schools saying, 'We don't need this. Our curriculum is rigorous enough,' and you may just see a wave happening."

Crossroads is not the first school to replace its AP curriculum. Several prestigious private schools in the Northeast, including Fieldston and Dalton in New York City, decided several years ago to dump AP and develop their own college-level courses. Others, such as the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, have long sandwiched AP material within courses that are intended to be deeper and more rigorous than the College Board requirements.

Such schools, which enjoy an enviable reputation among admissions officers at elite colleges, say their students have never been penalized for taking courses that don't precisely match the AP curriculum.

Administrators from Fieldston wrote in 2002 that, after their first year without AP, more students were admitted to highly selective colleges than had been the case for years.

Among the California institutions to pave the way for Crossroads is the Midland School, a small coeducational boarding school in Santa Barbara County that decided to drop AP courses two years ago.

David Lourie, the head of the school, said he has no regrets. "We are more able to spend time on longer-term projects, approach our courses more thematically and do more team teaching," he said. "It's just freed much more opportunity for us to do these things."

Trevor Packer, executive director of the College Board's Advanced Placement program, said he knows of only a dozen schools over the last three years that have decided to stop offering AP courses, and he added that they continue to offer the exams.

All of them are private college-prep schools with the resources to develop their own courses that will offer the same rigor as those developed by the College Board and will prepare a student to pass a corresponding AP exam, he said.

A school with those kinds of resources might want to offer a course on the Vietnam War as depicted in film, for example, or emphasize the labor movement instead of offering a broad survey course on American history, Packer said.

The few public schools that have suspended participation have done so because their students fared poorly, and they usually rejoin the program once they have improved instruction and taken other steps to increase their students' chances of success, he said.

Packer said the AP program remains popular, with several hundred new schools joining during the three-year period in which some private schools dropped out. He said "study after study" has shown successful participation in one or more AP classes to be a strong predictor of a student's success in college.

Before making its decision, Crossroads surveyed 200 colleges and universities nationwide, and was assured by 90% of them that Crossroads students would not be penalized for taking advanced courses that diverged from the AP curriculum, Weaver said.

He said the school would have its new courses certified by the University of California so that students could still get the grade-point boost for college-level work. And he said that Crossroads would continue to offer AP tests to students who wanted to take them.

Crossroads currently offers 14 Advanced Placement courses and 13 other honors courses. Some classes may change little, Weaver said. A new calculus class, for instance, would probably be quite similar to AP calculus and would prepare students for the AP test. In other cases, however, he said Crossroads intends to develop classes that bear little resemblance to existing AP courses.

As an example, he cited biology, which he said is among the AP classes that he considers superficial. In its place, he envisions something like Marine Biology of the Urban California Coast, which could be a multidisciplinary class requiring students to dig deeply into the biology of their immediate environment.

He said the school's faculty will begin shortly to develop the new curriculum, "one that will provide students a rigorous, innovative and engaging experience."

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