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Florida's Anti-Voucher Ruling Challenged

A voucher school advocacy group is looking to change the Florida state's uniformity clause so it would allow for public funds to go toward voucher school programs in the Sunshine state.

The Alliance for School Choice, based in Phoenix, is exploring various options, including a constitutional amendment to change the state's uniformity clause, which is the ground upon which the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's voucher program in January.

The Florida Supreme Court claimed the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program, which serves 733 of the state's 2.4 million public school students, violates a constitutional mandate that the state provide a uniform and effective, high quality system of public schools by taking public dollars to benefit private schools.

"The court then goes on to note an exception to that for students who are disabled or economically disadvantaged," says Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of Alliance for School Choice. "It's a genuinely complex decision."

Bolick adds that the opinion likely does not jeopardize other school voucher programs in other states or cities in the U.S., including Milwaukee and Cleveland. "I don't think this opens up any Pandora's box for school choice," he says.

Wisconsin does have a uniformity clause, but the Supreme Court there ruled that the uniformity guarantee is a "floor not a ceiling" for legislative activities in support of education. Choice is over and above the uniform public school system, Bolick adds.

But he says that Ohio does not have a uniformity clause. Plaintiffs had argued, unsuccessfully, that the state constitution does guarantee public education, and the constitution forbade private school choice programs. The court rejected that opinion.

When asked why public funds should continue to go toward private schools, Bolick says: "We have a wonderful precedent at the post-secondary level in the GI Bill and Pell Grants. We seem to be very comfortable with the notion that ... students can pursue higher education using public funds at public or private institutions.

"And the crucial question is, are we supporting public education? Or are public schools exclusive means to achieve that," he asks.

Real-life Laptop Usage To be Studied

Ditching the guessing or anecdotal-story game for hard-core data is what a new two-and-a-half-year study of Dell laptops at the Henrico (Va.) County School District is all about.

In the most extensive study of a school/laptop computer program in the U.S., administrators and computer experts hope to find real answers about integrating technology into schools. The study is part of the $18 million, four-year contract between Dell and Henrico to provide laptops for high school students.

"This is about how to gather data that is responsive to teacher and student learning needs. Data ought to help with what adjustments we need to make and have an impact on student learning," says Superintendent of Schools Fred Morton. "An equal part to this is gathering data that says, from the board's perspective, what difference does it make?"

The difference in this study which will be led by Dale Mann, professor emeritus at Columbia University and managing director of Interactive Inc., which specializes in evaluating the outcomes of different learning initiatives from other studies is that it is beyond self-reporting and will have real data, Morton and Mann say.

The study will include looking at server records, such as seeing how much reading and math was done on laptops in a given day, Mann says. Or server records could reveal if a laptop is turned on at 7:30 p.m. Firewalls in the program won't allow students into chat rooms or questionable Web sites, so the only reason they'd be on the laptop would be school-related, Mann says. "They're only doing work or talking to each other about homework, or messaging a teacher that they couldn't find a Web site," Mann says. "If it's lighting up after school hours we know there is a productivity gain."

Mann cited a reported statistic that 40 percent of the growth in the gross domestic product of the U.S. in the 1990s was due to productivity gains enabled by technology. "Kids have always had to go to the school to learn, but what if learning can go to the kids," Mann asks.

Pop-up surveys to teachers and students will also ask such questions as, is the reading related to Virginia standards, or is the teacher talking or are you working independently?

Researchers from the University of Virginia and Boston College will provide some qualitative and quantitative pieces, such as looking at more direct interaction in classrooms, Morton says.

The study could result in clear implications for staff development and "real learning as we continue to grow in the 21st century," Morton says.

Questions to Ask

In what ways would the technology be used in class?

What's working?

What's not working?

What does learning look like for students?

Is this tool enhancing student learning?

What should be done and how should laptops be used in

different content areas like math, science and art?

Arabic and Russian Push

Learning foreign language in American schools, K-12 and college, will be vital in part to combat terrorism and promote freedom and democracy, according to President Bush. The president recently announced plans to boost foreign-language study, or those the government has identified as "critical" for national security including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi. Bush plans to request $114 million in 2007 for the programs.

Feds Help Students Go Wireless

A federal loan program helped sixth and seventh graders at the Fayetteville School District in Arkansas get wireless laptop computers for next school year, according to The Morning News.

The school board is borrowing about $700,000 under the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, which allows schools to borrow at little or no interest under the 1997 Tax Payer Relief Act.

More Data Get Gates' Approval

Improving the collection and use of education data and creating state longitudinal data systems to improve student achievement are among the biggest pushes of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the U.S. Department of Education.

At the organizations' November Data Summit, the Data Quality Campaign, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the National Center for Educational Accountability, the group kicked off a plan to provide tools for states in creating longitudinal data systems and providing a national forum to improve data quality and access.

Ten national organizations have signed on as founding partners in the campaign, hoping to develop high-quality systems that gather data on the same students year to year in every state over the next three years; to promote the valuable uses of such data and financial data to improve achievement; and to use common data standards and efficient data transfer.

Policy makers must also plan for future improvements including the ability to link school performance with spending, connect education systems with employment and to transfer records across states, while also protecting student privacy.

Steps to Interest Free Loans:

Establish your district as a Zone Academy.

Once the Zone Academy is established, determine your project's scope and details.

Create a public/private partnership.

The partnership must locate a qualified contributor to supply a 10 percent matching grant.

Notify state department of education and submit a request for allocation.

Locate a qualified buyer willing to take your debt and a tax credit instead of an

interest check.

Texas Closes District Permanently

The Texas Education Agency plans to permanently obliterate poor-performing Wilmer-Hutchins School District and send its students to Dallas schools as of July, pending clearance by the U.S. Justice Department. State law gives the agency the option to close a district that has been rated academically unacceptable for two consecutive years.

Tennessee Creates Special History

The Tennessee Department of Education established a uniform curriculum for African-American history to be taught in any high school that wants to add it as an elective. In the past, schools wanting to offer an African-American history class, or any class not typically offered, had to design lesson plans and get state permission to offer it as a special course. The class is not designed to replace required high school history courses, like world history, but it will teach the subject in depth that typically does not happen, according to the

Teacher Rights When Fired

Teachers need to know their rights. In an unusual move, a National Education Association attorney for a teacher acquitted of sexual abuse charges in court was recently smacked with sanctions for bringing to court what the judge thought was a frivolous lawsuit.

David Perino, a former teacher at Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia, was charged about two years ago with sexually abusing a mentally handicapped student but was later acquitted in court. Perino then filed eight lawsuits against the system and some employees.

When he tried to win his job back and clear his name in January, a Prince William Circuit Court judge ordered sanctions against him and his attorney, Pamela Cave. The judge claimed the lawsuits were harassing and ordered the pair to pay more than $14,000 to cover the school's legal fees. (Cave could not be reached for comment.)

In light of the case, Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel for NEA, says teachers have rights but the judge felt the allegations were frivolous.

Every state has some tenure protection, meaning veteran teachers can only be fired for just cause, Simpson says. Teachers usually have rights to a school hearing such as before the school board or a state education agency, and only a majority of the members listening to the evidence must find wrongdoing to take action, he adds.

In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a crime. The jury must be unanimous to convict.

"Anyone can sue anybody else," Simpson says. Sometimes, a teacher is let go because they might have "ticked off the powers that be" and in some cases, First Amendment lawsuits are filed, Simpson says. Those win "once in a blue moon," he says.

Spellings Wants Strategy for Higher Ed

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently created a commission to develop a comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education.

The commission, led by Charles Miller, former chairman of the Board of Regents over the University of Texas, would make recommendations by next August and tackle such issues as:


How well colleges prepare students for the global economy

The lack of solid information about what colleges are not doing well.

Largest Merit Pay In Texas

Houston Independent School District will have the largest merit pay program in the U.S., basing rewards to teachers on how well their students score on standardized tests.

The $14.5 million program would distribute up to $3,000 annually per teacher and up to $25,000 for senior administrators. Houston business leaders and Superintendent of Schools Abelardo Saavedra hailed it, while the United Federation of Teachers wants across-the-board raises, according to The New York Times.

Denver's similar merit pay program was approved last fall, but Houston has about 210,000 students compared to Denver's 70,000.

First Steroid Testing of Its Kind

Some New Jersey high school athletes will be subjected to random steroid testing under an unprecedented plan recently issued by then-acting Gov. Richard Codey, according to the Philadelphia News Inquirer.

Athletes whose teams qualify for state championship tournaments could be subjected to testing. If they test positive, they will be barred from state championship events and could face a year-long ban from school athletics. It's a first-of-its-kind for any state in the U.S., according to the National High School Athletic Coaches Association.


Student-Teacher Ratio Could Change

The 10.9-1 student-to-teacher ratio in Vermont is the lowest in the nation, but the powers that be think it's creating a green headache.

Raising the ratio to 12 or 13 students to one teacher would still leave the state below the national average of 15.6 students per teacher and save Vermont taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year, says Vermont Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham.

Water Flows For Brain

At least one school in Maryland is giving students a break, a water break that is.

Lindale Middle School has 59 water coolers in classrooms, in addition to hallway water fountains, to encourage students to drink more, a way to stave off dehydration and help students think more clearly, according to The Baltimore Sun. Research shows that children need more water than they're currently consuming.

And the National Academy of Integrative Learning, which finds ways to increase learning capacity, says the physiology of the learner is important and thinks more water access is key. The principal jumped at the idea.

South Dakota Provides Vision

Administrators in South Dakota have a lot to do in the next four years.

Gov. Michael Rounds launched the 2010 Education Initiative providing a vision for the future of education. Part of the plan will involve coordinating preschool services, providing laptops for high school students, and offering virtual schooling.

By 2010:

1. All third-graders will be proficient or on a learning plan to be proficient in reading and math.

2. South Dakota will be the first in the nation for the percentage of students going to college, technical school or advanced training.

3. The postsecondary education system will meet the needs of the state's changing economy and its citizens.

4. South Dakota will build its educator base through targeted recruitment, retention and training.

5. South Dakota will increase educational outcomes for American Indian students.

6. The state will target financial resources to improve classroom instruction and educational opportunities.

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