Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Va. Attorney General: Colleges Can't Ban Discrimination against homosexuals‏

Virginia's attorney general has advised the state's public colleges that they don't have the authority to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, saying only the General Assembly has that power.

The letter sent by Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli to state college presidents and other officials Thursday drew swift criticism from Democrats and gay rights activists.

Cuccinelli said the legislature has repeatedly refused to exercise its authority. As recently as Tuesday, a subcommittee killed legislation that would have banned job discrimination against gay state employees. "It is my advice that the law and public policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia prohibit a college or university from including 'sexual orientation,' 'gender identity,' 'gender expression,' or like classification, as a protected class within its nondiscrimination policy, absent specific authorization from the General Assembly," Cuccinelli wrote.

The Republican advised college governing boards to "take appropriate actions to bring their policies in conformance with the law."

Jon Blair, chief executive officer of the gay rights group Equality Virginia, said Cuccinelli's "radical actions are putting Virginia at risk of losing both top students and faculty, and discouraging prospective ones from coming here."

C. Richard Cranwell, state Democratic Party chairman, said Virginia's colleges and universities were more than capable of setting policies that work for them "without meddling from Ken Cuccinelli."

The attorney general said his letter merely stated Virginia law, which prohibits discrimination because of "race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, or disability," but makes no mention of sexual orientation. Cuccinelli said the criticism was coming from people who have been frustrated in their attempts to change the law. "None of them suggest our reading of the law is wrong. It's people who don't like the policy speaking up because it's their opportunity to go on the attack," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg said colleges are bound by U.S. Supreme Court decisions not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

A spokesman for the Family Foundation of Virginia, which has opposed expanding state anti-discrimination policies to protect gays, said the criticism of Cuccinelli's action is unwarranted. "My understanding is all he's done is essentially ask the universities to follow the law," spokesman Chris Freund said. "It's a little perplexing to see people respond the way they have."

Virginia's last two Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, signed executive orders barring state agencies from discriminating in hiring, promotions or firing based on sexual orientation. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who took office in January, removed protections based on sexual orientation from his anti-discrimination order. As attorney general in 2006, McDonnell said Kaine exceeded his constitutional authority by extending protections to gays.


American schools turning to a four-day week

At great inconvenience to many parents and with no clear idea of its impact on learning

A small but growing number of school districts across the country are moving to a four-day week, in a shift they hope will help close gaping budget holes and stave off teacher layoffs, but that critics fear could hurt students' education. State legislators and local school boards are giving administrators greater flexibility to set their academic calendars, making the four-day slate possible. But education experts say little research exists to show the impact of shortened weeks on learning. The missed hours are typically made up by lengthening remaining school days.

Of the nearly 15,000-plus districts nationwide, more than 100 in at least 17 states currently use the four-day system, according to data culled from the Education Commission of the States. Dozens of other districts are contemplating making the change in the next year—a shift that is apt to create new challenges for working parents as well as thousands of school employees.

The heightened interest in an abbreviated school week comes as the Obama administration prepares to plow $4.35 billion in extra federal funds into underperforming schools. The administration has been advocating for a stronger school system in a bid to make the U.S. more academically competitive on a global basis.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said in an email that she couldn't comment on four-day weeks in specific districts. But "generally, we are concerned about financial constraints leading to a reduction in learning time."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was critical of the shift. "The budgetary pressure makes doing more reform more difficult," she said in a statement.

Some schools, meanwhile, say they are turning to the four-day schedule as a last resort. In North Branch, Minn., school Superintendent Deb Henton said her 3,500-student district, facing a $1.3 million deficit, is simply out of options. "We've repeatedly asked our residents to pay higher taxes, cut some of our staff, and we may even close one of our schools," she said. "What else can you really do?" Despite a "lot of opposition" from parents, she said, the district is set to adopt a four-day week for next school year.

A new law in Georgia allows schools a choice between a 180-day school year "or the equivalent." Hawaii officials last October introduced 17 mandatory "Furlough Fridays" for state public schools. In Minnesota and Iowa, districts are drafting proposals for their state boards of education in hopes of implementing four-day schedules next school year. In the rural Peach County, Ga., district, a four-day week this school year helped school officials save more than $200,000 last semester, trimming costs for custodial and cafeteria workers and bus drivers as well as transportation expenses and utilities, said system spokeswoman Sara Mason.

The district is on track to save 39 teaching positions and $400,000 by the end of the school year, helping to narrow a $1 million shortfall in the district's $30 million annual budget. "The savings so far have been phenomenal," said Ms. Mason, adding that she has fielded calls from officials at a dozen other Georgia schools considering making the switch.

Teachers who still work the same number of hours over four days, instead of five, generally don't see a reduction in salary. But staff who can't make up the lost time, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers, are often hard-hit, losing as much as 20% of their pay.

The four-day school week isn't new. But until recently, it has been used mostly by small, rural districts. A few rural Colorado school districts implemented four-day calendars in the 1980s for financial reasons, and now about a third of the state's 178 districts operate on a four-day calendar. The system is currently most prevalent in Western states, where districts with four-day weeks in some cases comprise a quarter of the schools.

Four-day weeks have been in place for decades in states like New Mexico, Idaho and Wyoming and initially came about as states were looking to combat growing energy prices. Last week, Pueblo School District 70 in Colorado said it would adopt the schedule next school year for its roughly 8,000 students.

The shift has drawn scrutiny from some education and parents groups who say the shorter week hurts students academically and complicates child-care efforts. "There's no way a switch like that wouldn't negatively affect teaching and learning," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which is discouraging schools in the state from exploring four-day weeks.

Monte Thompson, superintendent of Gore Public Schools in Oklahoma, where the system is in its first year, said teachers have to do a "dog and pony show to keep kids' attention" for the extra hour and 40 minutes spent in class from Tuesday to Friday. "I get why schools have moved toward this, but I don't think finances justify hurting the kids educationally," said Mr. Thompson, who became the superintendent after the system was implemented. He said Gore schools are saving about $35,000 with the change, but will revert back to five days in the next school year.

The schedules have struck a nerve with some working parents who have had to revamp child-care plans. Christina Long, a mother of three girls who attend North Branch, Minn., schools, said she will also have to rethink her career plans in light of next year's academic calendar. "I'd always said I would go back to full-time once my youngest was in school," said Ms. Long, who works part-time around her youngest daughter's school schedule. "Next year was supposed to be that year, but now I don't know what I can do job-wise with that four-day schedule."

In Georgia's Peach County, the community has stepped up to assist parents who've been put in a bind by the Tuesday to Friday school schedule. Two different Boys and Girls Club sites and a church are offering affordable child care and tutoring, respectively, on Mondays for between $10 and $15....


British university targets have 'devalued' degrees

Labour’s drive to boost the number of teenagers going on to university has “driven down standards” of higher education, according to Britain’s biggest employers. In a stinging pre-election attack, the Association of Graduate Recruiters said the “artificial” growth in undergraduates had created problems for organisations who can no longer differentiate between courses. It also warned that targets designed to increase the number of students from poor backgrounds risked being met at the expense of maintaining high academic standards.

The group – which represents 750 public and private sector organisations including Tesco, PricewaterhouseCoopers, BP, the Crown Prosecution Service and even the Cabinet Office – called on the Government to scrap its long-standing commitment to get at least half of people into university by their 30th birthday.

Business leaders said the goal – first set a decade ago – should be abolished to allow universities to focus on “quality not quantity”. They also called on institutions to give students lessons in basic skills amid fears that too many graduates lack customer awareness, teamwork skills or the ability to communicate with colleagues.

The comments come amid growing controversy over university admissions. In the last decade, the Government has encouraged more school-leavers to strive for higher education. Tens of millions of pounds has been spent on roadshows and publicity campaigns to tempt more sixth-formers into applying and universities have been given benchmarks to raise the number of students recruited from state schools and deprived backgrounds. Almost 400,000 more students are in university this year compared with 1997.

But a sharp increase in the number of applications in 2010 – combined with a freeze on places due to public spending cuts – risks leaving hundreds of thousands without a course this September.

The AGR said that Government’s “artificial” target to raise student numbers had failed to serve the needs of teenagers or British industry. In a report, billed as a pre-election manifesto, the AGR said: “The introduction of a target to get 50 per cent of all under-30s into higher education by 2010 has driven down standards, devalued the currency of a degree and damaged the quality of the student university experience. “Growing numbers of students are studying degree courses which lack rigour in below-average institutions.

“This does not help young people’s life chances or represent a good financial investment. It also creates problems for graduate employers who can no longer be sure what the value of certain degree courses and institutions is. “The focus must shift back to quality rather than quantity, while the offering must adapt to meet the needs of a wider range of backgrounds and abilities.”

Since 1997, the overall number of 18- to 30-year-olds with a degree has increased marginally to just over four-in-10. But a study earlier this year from the Government’s Higher Education Funding Council for England showed a sharp rise in the proportion of teenagers going straight into university from school or college. Some 30 per cent of 18- and 19-year-olds went on to higher education in the mid-1990s compared with 36 per cent by 2010 – an increase of a fifth.

AGR members – which also include BAE Systems, the Bank of England, Goldman Sachs, the National Audit Office, Network Rail and the Royal Mail – collectively recruit 30,000 graduates a year. Its study – “Talent, Opportunity, Prosperity” – backed proposals from universities to introduce a “report card” to give students a detailed list of their achievements alongside raw degree classifications. The existing system of first, second and third-class degrees fails to give employers a realistic picture of graduates’ abilities, it said.

It also called for the gradual phasing out of the cap on tuition fees to allow universities to charge what they like by 2020. Families should be encouraged to save for higher education through a national savings scheme, the AGR said. The study suggested that safeguards should be put in place to encourage students from poor backgrounds to apply but insisted that university admissions should be judged on merit.

This follows concerns from private school leaders that institutions are being put under pressure to make lower grade offers to sixth-formers from poor-performing state schools. Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive, said: “Yes, we want to see as many young people as possible progress to higher education, but, crucially, only on the basis of academic ability and achievement. Yes, we must widen participation - but not indiscriminately.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "The economy needs more - not less - highly skilled young people. "We have never suggested that 50 per cent of the population should go directly from school to a conventional three-year degree. Many of these people will already be in the workforce, which is why we set out the need for more flexible modes of study. "Our universities have maintained a world-class reputation for excellence at a time of rapid expansion and we continue to have high levels of graduate employability and consistently high employer and student satisfaction.

"The Government has commissioned an independent review of higher education funding and student finance chaired by Lord Browne. The panel is currently gathering evidence and we will not pre-empt the findings of the review."

David Willetts, the Conservative shadow skills secretary, said: “This is a useful report. I completely agree with the attack on the artificial 50 per cent target. People should go to university when they believe they have the ability to benefit from it – not to meet some top-down target set by Labour ministers.”

But student leaders branded the conclusions “offensive”. Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said: “The AGR does not seem to appreciate how much its own members benefit from our higher education system. “It is in the long term interest of our economy that the number of highly skilled graduates entering our workforce continues to increase.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The future for the UK is at the forefront of a high-skilled knowledge economy and we won’t get there with less graduates.” [The general secretary of the University and College Union doesn't know the difference between "less" and "fewer"? She has revealed more than she intended, it would seem]


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