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Edison Buyout Draws Ire in Florida

This past fall, Florida teachers found themselves in a strange alliance. Sunshine State teachers, via their state pension plan, became the new owners of Edison Schools. The Florida Retirement System purchased the Edison business, which includes school management, charter schools, summer and after-school programs and achievement management solutions in 20 states, for $180 million in November 2003. The buyout does not give teachers any direct involvement in the Edison business nor does it affect the company's 130 full-year schools and 200 summer schools nationwide. The sole purpose of the deal is to add to the retirement system's coffers.

Edison Schools and Liberty Partners, the investment firm that manages FRS, cooked up the buyout without consulting Florida teachers. Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, questions the wisdom of spending $180 million on a company with "a terrible track record." Edison did not turn a profit until June 2003, when it reported a $10 million quarterly profit.

The flip side is that the outlook for school privatization is excellent, and the purchase of the company will make money for the pension fund. FRS administrators plan to sell the company for a profit in the future. The time for re-selling Edison depends on profitability and the market for education management solutions. The plan could succeed. When Edison was on the market, more than 10 buyers wanted to purchase the company. Adam Tucker, spokesperson for Edison Schools, points out, "It's in everybody's best interest for Edison to be successful."

If Edison succeeds, the biggest beneficiary may be company founder and CEO, Christopher Whittle, not Florida teachers. That's because Whittle remains CEO and could earn up to $28.6 million over five years in options and pay--on top of a six-figure salary. Whittle receives bonus pay and options if Edison performs "extremely well"--which has not been explained in detail yet--in academic progress and financial performance.

Whether or not teachers make out financially on the deal, Pudlow says it sends a poor message to teachers. While Florida is cutting programs such as summer schools and teacher aides, the state is taking $180 million of the teachers' money to buy a company that peddles solutions that threaten public schools. "To spend $180 million on Edison Schools is a slap in the face," Pudlow says. www.edisonschools.com

--Lisa Fratt

Kids Taking Over WWW

Online games and music files that kids play and download are helping to create a gap between students and their schools. But it's not a distraction from schoolwork. Digital-age students are becoming so tech-savvy that their teachers and schools are having a tough time keeping up--frustrating youngsters who want more.

That is the upshot of a new study called, Children, Families and the Internet, by Grunwald Associates, a San Mateo, Calif., research firm.

Researchers released data last month culled from surveys of 2,300 6- to 17-year-old students and more than 1,000 parents in 2002.

In certain cases, students were providing some technical support to their schools.

"First and foremost, it means that schools are going to have to measure up to the expectations that kids have in regards to technology or else they're going to lose even more attention and relevance for both kids and their parents," says Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates. "Schools are facing this set of expectations and need to be able to respond."

Nearly half of students using the Internet at home and more than a third of their parents say kids are getting too little time online in their schools. And frustration is rising. That's about double the number of kids and parents who expressed a similar dissatisfaction in 2000, Grunwald says.

An earlier Grunwald survey of school district technology specialists indicates that problem isn't limited to older teachers who are not tech trained. "Even new teachers coming into schools have quite a ways to go," Grunwald says. "These are the newest, younger teachers."

Evidently, the shortfall is in teacher training and not in the level of accessible computer hardware in schools, says John Bailey, director of the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. He called for more local and state funding for professional development and greater scrutiny of how funding is earmarked.

"We shouldn't be talking about technology in addition to everything else we do in education," Bailey says. "We should be thinking about it in terms of replacing things we do in education. It's reallocating funds."

--Allan Richter

Internet Rules for Kids

Youths shouldn't be limited in using computers, but rather learn responsible habits so they don't fall into the hands of someone who wants to do harm.

The Technology Student Association in West Virginia warns youths to be highly protective of their personal data when they correspond with strangers over the Internet. According to a survey, most TSA students know that anonymity on the Internet cannot be ensured, seven out of 10 students know that online communications are traceable, and six in 10 know that chatting with strangers online can be risky.

Hurting for Cash? Loans to Go

Numerous Pennsylvania school districts are living the American way, taking out loans to pay for expenses, according to www.goerie.com.

The Erie School Board most recently approved applying for a $12 million loan, staving off the need to possibly close the city's 21 public schools. Other options for the district were to ask teachers and administrators to work "on good faith" until money was available or furlough selected staff.

Meanwhile, the district, being broke, was not paying bills as of mid-December. The loan will be due June 30 and the district will owe about $118,000 in interest.

Student's Death Triggers Title IX Test

A first-of-its-kind lawsuit in Texas is testing the responsibilities of school districts to protect students against sexual harassment under Title IX, the federal law that bans sexual discrimination in public schools. Unlike most Title IX cases, however, this one doesn't involve equality in academics or athletics.

Carolyn Mosley filed a wrongful death suit in November against the Austin Independent School District on behalf of herself and her 15-year-old daughter, Otralla Mosley. The girl was was fatally stabbed in a hallway at Austin's Reagan High School on March 28. Her mother is seeking $23 million in damages.

Another student, Marcus McTear, then 16, pleaded guilty to charges and received a 40-year sentence.

In her suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court, Mosley charges that school staff members knew that Marcus, who was once Otralla's boyfriend, had assaulted other girls on campus--punching and choking them and pushing them down stairs. But Mosley says the school provided no protection to Otralla when she told teachers two hours before her death that she was worried about her safety.

School districts can be sued under Title IX for sexual discrimination on campus, including student-to-student abuse, according to the U.S. Supreme Court's clarification of the law in two earlier cases. But the Mosley suit is believed to be the first Title IX case involving death and seeking monetary damages.

The law appears to protect districts more than students. To win, Mosley must show "the school had actual notice of the harassment and was deliberately indifferent to it," says Jocelyn Samuels, a vice president at the National Women's Law Center. "That is an extremely stringent standard that

I think is unprecedented in civil rights laws."

Mosley's attorney, Sergei V. Kachura, says he has "never seen such deliberate indifference" as the slaying case demonstrates.

Mel Waxler, general counsel of the Austin school district, says it will seek to dismiss Mosley's claims. Meanwhile, the district's Board of Trustees launched a review of safety at all of its schools.

--Alan Dessoff

Gay Comment Starts Flap in Louisiana District

The Lafayette Parish School District in Louisiana allegedly encroached on the free speech of a 7-year-old boy recently by punishing him for telling another student that his mother is gay.

Last November, the then 6-year-old Marcus McLaurin reportedly told a classmate that he had two mothers and explained that, "Gay is when a girl likes another girl," Hampton says.

The teacher, Terry Bethea, chastised the boy in front of his classmates and sent him to the principal's office. The next day he was forced to repeatedly write, "I will never use the word gay again," Hampton says.

Marcus's mother, Sharon Huff, contacted the ACLU for assistance. As of mid-January, the ACLU was considering legal action against the Louisiana district.

Although there appears to be a boom in anti-gay behavior in public schools nationwide, Chris Hampton, public education associate at the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project with the National ACLU, says she has not noticed a trend. She says school officials could use more training to deal with the different lifestyles and cultures. "I think there is a big problem with students not knowing what their rights are and schools not knowing what their obligations are under the law," Hampton says.

"Of course we believe that parents should be the ones who talk with small children about things like sex, but Marcus McLaurin's school seems to think that he was talking about sex when all he was talking about was his two mothers," said Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU in Louisiana, in a prepared statement.

The ACLU presented three demands to the school board. First, they requested the incident be removed from Marcus' record; second, the parish must agree to not restrict his speech in the future; and third, school officials must apologize to Marcus and his mother.

On Dec. 12, the parish school board voted 5-to-3 to refuse to apologize. According to The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, several school board members accepted the explanation of school officials who said Marcus was disciplined for disrupting class. However, the explanation contradicts two disciplinary reports, signed by Bethea, who wrote the child's offense was using the word "gay" and describing it to another child. Superintendent of Schools James Easton did not return a call for comment. www.aclu.org

--Steven Scarpa

Gambling For Classes

In dozens of states across the nation, lottery proceeds have been billed as cash cows that would enhance education. But has that really happened? Some watchdogs say budget-strapped states are increasingly relying on gambling proceeds to fund basic educational needs and that lottery revenues make up a very small portion of education funding.

"Lottery money does not enhance, to any great extent, money available for education,'' says John Augenblick, a Denver-based education funding consultant. "Over time, you might get a bump initially, but states will reduce general fund money that had been supporting education in recognition of available lottery money."

Only 15 of the 49 states that have lotteries earmark 100 percent of the profits toward education. Twenty-one states earmark a portion of the lottery proceeds toward education. In 13 states, the lottery earnings go to the state general fund, which may or may not be used for education.

But even in the states where 100 percent of the profits are supposed to go to education, such as California, lottery earnings only make up 2 percent of the total education budget. Lottery proceeds in the U.S. totaled more than $13.7 billion in 2002, up from 12.4 billion in 2001, according to the North American Association of State & Provincial Lotteries.

"The percentage of money we get from the lottery is budget dust," says Brett McFadden, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrations.

Education funding from the state actually decreased after the lottery was introduced in California in 1987, says McFadden. Then in the 1990s, residents approved a proposition mandating a minimum amount of state educational funding, with lottery revenues as an enhancement. But this year, McFadden says the state formula for education funding that relies on property taxes decreased, translating into $7 billion less in its usual $44 to $45 billion budget. Lottery money, which makes up about $1 billion of the education funding each year, will have to help make up for the shortfall.

In Vermont, which requires all lottery revenues go toward education, lottery profits are one source of funding for the state education budget and they have been decreasing. Lottery revenues, which represent about 2 percent of the total education budget, decreased from $18.9 million in 2000 to $15.5 million in 2003.

"If money from the lottery goes down, the money isn't made up from the state,'' says Brad James, state education finance manager. This year Vermont is hoping to buck up its lottery proceeds by introducing Powerball.

In Florida, which established the lottery in 1986, at least a third of lottery profits must be sent to the Education Enhancement Trust Fund each year. State officials say it has been a great help toward funding education. In 2002, the lottery transferred a record $926 million to the trust, and it is expected to surpass $1 billion in 2003-2004. The money is used for everything from scholarships to construction. Florida state education officials say the state has still increased the education budget, but critics say the percentage of the general fund used for education has decreased since the lottery was established and the money is being used for basic education needs like school construction.

"The definition of enhancement is something that is subject to debate,'' says Link Jarrett, director of budgeting for Florida's state DOE. "We would be at a real loss without that billion available to us."

--Fran Silverman

Slower Growth of Students

In the next decade, national student enrollment is expected to grow 5 percent, for a total of 56.4 million students. But the growth has slowed since the late 1980s through 2001, when student growth increased 19 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Women are having fewer children than they were a few decades ago, but the rate of births is still high for a developed country.

The growth factor also depends on what part of the country you study. Overall, public school enrollment is projected to increase in 30 states, decrease in 19 states and the District of Columbia and remain the same in Louisiana. nces.ed.gov

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Houston Officials Aren't Cooperating

Some principals and superintendents were still not taking responsibility in December for potentially bad record keeping at Houston Independent School District, three months into a six-month review, a state auditor told the Houston Chronicle.

A Texas Education Agency official has met with HISD officials since August, after investigations revealed erroneous dropout data in district records.

"Those failing [to do adequate jobs in record-keeping] should be dealt with by the local district," stated Marvin Crawford of TEA. Administrators who do not double-check and correct data face "severe consequences," such as losing their jobs, says HISD spokesman Terry Abbott.

Coaching of a Different Kind

Forget coaches on the field. Recent reports show that literacy coaches can improve adolescent literacy in middle and high school students nationwide.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a non-profit organization aimed to help at-risk students, released two reports on the issue: Adolescents and Literacy: Reading for the 21st Century and The Literacy Coach: A Key to Improving Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools. The latter study's author, Elizabeth Sturtevant of George Mason University, reports that early results and anecdotal evidence show high levels of success in the small number of programs using literacy coaches now. www.all4ed.org

Giving Back in Detroit

An up close and personal look into teaching at urban schools is what future teachers will receive thanks to a new $6 million partnership between the Broad Foundation, Michigan State University and Detroit Public Schools. The partnership will make way to recruit, train, and place up to 750 new teachers in one of the nation's most challenged school districts.

Starting this summer, about 150 selected Detroit high school students will receive scholarships and loans to cover a five-year teacher preparation program at Michigan State before returning to Detroit schools as teachers.

"My commitment to this partnership is based on a clear-eyed look at the future--and the failure of our public schools to prepare our nation and our children for that future," says philanthropist and Detroit native Eli Broad.

Last year, a community think tank released survey results revealing that 40 percent of Detroit teachers said they were not well-prepared to deal with the needs and learning styles of children in urban environments. The initiative includes having Detroit high school sophomores and juniors attend a summer program at Michigan State to learn the importance of teaching. Once participants graduate from MSU, their student loans will be repaid, with the grant money, after teaching for four years.

As another part of the initiative, Michigan State teacher candidates will step into a seven-week summer fellowship in Detroit Public Schools to gain hands-on teaching experience in urban schools.

"The students will gain practical experience in the challenges that face urban students," which are particularly linked to poverty, says Caesar Mickens, director of training and staff development for Detroit Public Schools. "All kids are eager to learn. The biggest issue is getting young teachers to really understand how the social component impacts the learning and being able to effectively teach in that environment."

Mickens hopes the program will provide a new model for schools of education. "Other areas have had pieces of this initiative, but having all of the pieces of the initiative integrated together is extremely powerful because you need to have a systemic approach," Mickens says. "I think that is what is lacking in many cases in educational environments. You don't have a continuous process." www.broadfoundation.org

--Nicole Rivard

States Giving False Grad Rates and Teacher Quality Stats

Many states, particularly North Carolina, overestimate their high school graduation rates, which undermines chances to address struggling student needs, according to a recent study by an education advocacy group.

Not only are graduation rates less than honest, but so are teacher quality reports, according to various news reports.

North Carolina, for example, told the federal government that more than 92 percent of its public school students graduated in 2002, according to The Education Trust. Fewer than 66 percent of the state's students actually graduated.

As for teacher quality, few states are honestly reporting and assessing the quality of their public school teachers. The Education Trust criticized the state of Washington for not requiring teacher tests that were mandated by No Child Left Behind Act, which became law two years ago.

Every state also had to report graduation rates this year to the U.S. Department of Education due to NCLB.

Superintendents Have Pick of Litter

Superintendents are in a good spot. Competition is growing for school superintendents as colleagues retire, and there are fewer qualified candidates, according to a recent story in The Boston Globe. This year, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents expects about 40 openings for superintendents, out of 278 positions.

And while many districts are slashing budgets, several school committees are approving dramatic increases in pay and compensation for school superintendents.

Wisconsin School Gets Certified

Malcolm Shabazz City High School in the Madison Metropolitan School District recently received full certification from the National At-Risk Education Network--the first school to receive this nationwide notice.

NAREN, a private, non-profit educational agency to promote successful programs for at-risk youths and educators, created nine standards that guide effective design and implementation of quality programs for alternative education. The alternative high school documented the school's high quality in all nine areas.

Lawsuit Against Drug Raids

The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of 20 students who were allegedly terrorized by a SWAT team-style drug raid at Stratford High School in Columbia, S.C., last November.

A video from school surveillance tapes broadcast on national television showed police, with guns drawn, handcuffing students and forcing them to lie on the ground while drug dogs searched their belongings. No drugs were found and no charges were filed.

The lawsuit will charge school and police officials with violating students' right to be free from unlawful search and seizure and use of excessive force.

A Piece of the Reform Puzzle Helps Principals

This fall, Paul Vallas, CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, gave the principals of some of the area's most challenged high schools help to meet the standards he and the School Reform Commission have set for the district. The public schools were in dire straits two years ago. The help comes in the form of local management officers, who will take on non-academic responsibilities, giving the principals more time to focus on education.

"The LMOs are just one piece of an even bigger piece, which is part of a bigger puzzle," says Amy Guerin, a spokeswoman for the district, referring to Vallas' overall plan to restructure and improve the district.

For example, a sweeping curriculum and instruction reform plan is underway. A new standardized curriculum for pre-K through ninth grade was rolled out this fall. And since the success of the new curriculum, as well as efforts to raise standardized test scores, hinges on having motivated teachers, the district is investing more than $12 million in its recruitment and retention strategies this year. Efforts are also being made to reduce school violence.

The role of each local management officer differs according to the needs of the school, says Guerin. She explains one school might have budgeting and financial problems whole another tries to curb violence and create better discipline policies.

While it is still too early to determine the success of the LMOs, Guerin says there has been positive feedback and that principals already appreciate the support.

Kathy Christie, a vice president at the Education Commission of the States, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the idea has promise. "High school principals are expected to do such a variety of things, and even those who have assistant principals end up putting in an inordinate number of hours and many times don't have the time to dedicate to instruction."

--Nicole Rivard

Student Religious Groups Must Get Equal Access

The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided not to take a Washington state case that a federal appeals court had previously ruled that student religious groups must have equal access on school grounds.

The American Center for Law and Justice, an international public interest law firm, said the high court's decision represents a great victory for the First Amendment and for students nationwide.

The case involved a former student, Tausha Prince, at Lake High School in Spanaway, Wash., who wanted to start a student-led Bible club. The Bethel School District stated it was religious and refused to permit the club to have the same access to school property as other student clubs. In 1998, the ACLU filed a suit in federal court on behalf of the student. The district court ruled in favor of the district. An appeal went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in 2002 overturned the first court decision.


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