Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

FLORIDA: FEAR OF VOUCHERS SPURS PUBLIC-SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT
A little competition goes a long way
School-voucher supporters have long argued that vouchers would force public schools to compete to keep students. That seems to be happening in Florida. Florida education officials announced last week that the state's lowest-performing schools boosted their statewide writing-test scores enough so that no additional students will be eligible to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the results are the first signs of significant long-term gains in student performance: "It is encouraging, in the first year, when all the doomsday folks were saying it was going to be a disaster for public education, to see these kinds of results." University of Florida professor David Figlio had raised $2 million to study the state's voucher program for the National Science Foundation and other private entities. "It's interesting," said Mr. Figlio upon hearing that no new voucher recipients would be added to his study at this point. "All you need to have is a threat of vouchers." UPS AND DOWNS OF THE WEEK
Rogue states: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are moving up in the world. The U.S. State Department announced last week that it's softening its designation of nations that sponsor terrorism. The agency will no longer refer to such nations as "rogue states" but as "states of concern." Bill Richardson: The U.S. Secretary of Energy, once on everyone's short list to be Al Gore's running mate, is suddenly everyone's rogue cabinet official. Mr. Richardson last week said there was no evidence of espionage in the case of computer disks containing nuclear secrets that had disappeared and then reappeared at the Los Alamos weapons lab. Even Democrats on Capitol Hill were in a state of concern over this explanation. "There's no tolerance for data of this kind to be missing," said Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. Life expectancy: A study published in the journal Nature found that life expectancy in major industrialized countries is increasing faster than the governments of those countries are predicting. Researchers forecast that by the middle of the 21st century life expectancy will reach almost 83 years in the United States and almost 91 years in Japan. Government retirement programs: The same researchers also predict that if people live longer, an even greater strain will be placed on government programs for senior citizens. In the United States, for instance, the current "dependency ratio" is 0.22 residents over age 65 to every resident between ages 20 and 64. The study in Nature forecasts that ratio to almost double to 0.4 by 2050. Oil production: Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) agreed last week to increase oil production by 3 percent. Their goal: Lower skyrocketing prices for oil and gasoline. "Extremely high prices could have a negative effect on demand, so we are worried about that," said OPEC Secretary General Rilwanu Lukman. Still, economists predicted the move would not have much effect on summer gasoline prices. Actors' strike: A Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike against the advertising industry has hit a snag: Many athletes who promote products want no part of it. Track's Michael Johnson and basketball's Shaquille O'Neal are among the sports stars who have crossed the SAG picket line. SAG wants to change the ad industry's compensation structure. SUPREME COURT: Speech at school "is not ... private speech"
Watch what you pray
The U.S. Supreme Court last week confirmed that American public schools are secular to the core, rendering one of its most controversial school-prayer verdicts in decades. In a 6-3 decision, the high court upheld lower court rulings prohibiting Texas school districts from allowing student-led prayer over football stadium loudspeakers. "This is the first time in U.S. history the court has censored the religious speech of private citizens," said Kelly Shackelford, a Santa Fe school district lawyer who heads the Texas-based Liberty Legal Institute. The volatile school-prayer debate moved from classrooms to football fields last fall when 17-year-old Santa Fe student Marian Ward prayed in "Jesus' name" after classmates elected her to give a pre-game "message." (See WORLD, Nov. 13, 1999.) "If the Holy Spirit leads me to say something that they deem is wrong, I'm willing to pay the consequences for that," said Miss Ward, whose prayer reignited a previously filed ACLU lawsuit against the Santa Fe school district. The ACLU filed the original suit in 1995 over prayers at school events. In 1997, a district court agreed with the ACLU and even threatened arrest: "Make no mistake, the court is going to have a United States Marshal in attendance at the graduation," said District Judge Samuel Kent. "Anybody who violates these orders, no kidding, is going to wish that he or she had died as a child when this court gets through with it." Then last year, an appeals court also concurred with the ACLU, forbidding the mention of Jesus or names recognized by non-Christian religions as deities at "solemn" occasions like graduation ceremonies. The Santa Fe School District argued that its pre-game "messages" weren't necessarily prayers and that Miss Ward, elected by her peers to give the message, could say whatever she wanted to say. School board president John Couch bucked lawyers' advice to settle with the ACLU and instead led the board in a unanimous vote to petition the Supreme Court. Last week's verdict effectively barred student prayer spoken over a government-owned public address system from qualifying as constitutionally protected speech. "The delivery of such a message-over the school's public address system by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty ... is not properly characterized as private speech," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the Court's majority opinion. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were the three dissenters. In the ruling's wake, local school districts scrambled to adjust their pre-game traditions for the coming football season as legal advocates watched closely from the sidelines. Santa Fe school district officials said they would most likely wave the white flag after losing a five-year legal battle. Said Superintendent Richard Ownby: "My initial reaction would be, at this point, to eliminate an invocation or message as crafted." CONGRESS SLAPS DOWN FCC
Air war
Even if the Supreme Court won't stop regulation of religious speech in public schools, Congress last week at least called a halt to government regulation of religious speech on the public airwaves. The House passed legislation, which must pass the Senate, in reaction to a December Federal Communications Commission statement that broadcasters who want to acquire educational TV channels should devote half their air time to "educational" programs. Religious proselytizing and church services, according to the FCC's definition, did not count as "educational," but public broadcasting of the PBS variety did. The FCC has since rescinded the discriminatory proposal, but the bill was proposed to prevent its revival. "We are simply trying to prevent and prohibit the FCC from going down a dangerous path of regulating religious speech," said Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering (R-Miss.). Faces

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