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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.). FacesTwo years ago Mayme Puccio, a 54-year-old grandmother living in the New Jersey suburbs, horrified her family by purchasing a dilapidated house that had been a hub of drug trafficking in Paterson, N.J. She named the house "Trinity Retreat" and now spends her days there helping battered women and drug addicts. "There is nothing beyond redemption, not even a crack house," said Ms. Puccio. Indiana State Trooper Ben Endres's religious convictions cost him something he didn't gamble on: his job. When ordered to serve as a gaming agent on the Blue Chip Casino riverboat, Mr. Endres refused, explaining it was against his Christian beliefs, and offered to transfer to another district, even pleading to do janitorial duty instead. But supervisors stood by their order and promptly fired the eight-year police officer for disobeying. "I've got three boys I'm trying to raise for the Lord. What am I going to tell them, that Daddy works in the casino?" said Mr. Endres. He would have received a $1,800 bonus had he complied. COURT: States may not interfere in international commerce One foreign policy only State and local governments cannot have a foreign policy. So the Supreme Court ruled in striking down state-imposed trade sanctions in a June 19 decision overturning one state's efforts to restrict trade with Burma (also known as Myanmar). A Massachusetts law barred state contracts from going to any company doing business in Burma, largely because of the country's repression of democracy movements and the persecution of Karen Christians. The justices ruled unanimously that the state's Burma law intruded on the federal government's authority over international commerce. Repercussions of the law extend beyond Massachusetts. Already Miami-Dade County officials in Florida have acknowledged that the court decision means an end to their anti-Cuba policy, which prohibits the county from doing business with anyone who has dealings with Cuba. Assistant County Attorney Robert Cuevas said the ruling means the county can no longer prohibit the use of public facilities by Cuban artists or deny contracts to companies with ties to Cuba. Miami-Dade officials put the policy into effect in 1996 as a protest of communist rule in Cuba, which sends thousands of immigrants into Miami-Dade County each year. Even before the Supreme Court ruled, the policy had a price tag: Miami-Dade lost the Latin Grammy Awards to Los Angeles and lost out on hosting the 2007 Pan Am Games because of it. But Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas promised to obey the court: "While disappointed with today's decision, we will, of course, follow the law." BRITAIN: 58 illegals found dead Risking it all On a hot summer day last week at the British port of Dover, a lone customs officer performing a routine check on a Dutch truck loaded with tomatoes discovered the bodies of 58 people. The officer found only two people alive inside the refrigerated carrier. The survivors described how the passengers-all illegal Chinese immigrants-had screamed and banged on the doors of the truck. Their desperation mounted, they said, as companions began to pass out and die, apparently of suffocation. Police arrested the truck's Dutch driver, along with another man suspected of working with a Chinese criminal gang to gain illegal passage for the would-be immigrants. Known as "snakeheads," gang members reportedly charged over $20,000 a person to smuggle the people from Fujian Province in China. While European and Chinese officials vowed to crack down on the illegal trade, one question remained unanswered: Why would the Fujian residents risk so much to leave home behind? QuickTakes Violence against Christians continued in Indonesia's Maluku Islands last week. In a massacre on Halmahera, Muslim fighters killed at least 150 people. A church where Christian villagers had taken refuge in Duma was destroyed, as well as hundreds of homes, according to Newsroom. Church workers said it was one of the worst incidents on record in the long-running conflict, adding that women and children had been kidnapped. Two British Christian human-rights organizations, along with the U.S. Committee for Refugees, issued reports last week with identical conclusions: Jihad in Indonesia, they say, is aided by members of the Indonesian military. The groups also accused the media of "political correctness" in portraying both sides as equal transgressors. "There has been an inaccurate portrayal of the conflict as if both sides have been equally aggressive and at fault for the violence that has taken place," said Wilfred Wong of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which sent a team to the region last month. The London-based Jubilee Campaign reported similar findings. A young Christian preacher and evangelist working in India's Punjab state was found stabbed to death by construction workers near his rented house. Ashish Prabash was known in the community for showing the Jesus film and working with Campus Crusade. To the south, India's leading opposition party, the Congress party, has demanded a judicial probe into a recent series of bomb blasts that have destroyed churches in Andhra Pradesh. All are believed to be the work of Hindu militants. "Critical thinking" is not enough Darwin disclaimer tossed out by court A Louisiana public school district's disclaimer that accompanies its teaching on evolution must go. The disclaimer distanced the school district from the evolution vs. creation debate and urged students to "exercise critical thinking" on the matter of origins. But a federal appeals court found that to be a violation of the separation of church and state, and the Supreme Court last week refused to reverse that decision. The Tangipahoa Parish school board in 1994 voted to require teachers to tell students about to study the theory of evolution that the theory was "presented to inform students of the scientific concept and not intended to influence or dissuade the biblical version of creation or any other concept." The disclaimer drafted by the school board also said: "It is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his-her own opinion or maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter.... Students are urged to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion." Three parents of students sued in federal court, and a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the disclaimer, saying it had the effect of promoting religion. It did not bar a disclaimer per se but ruled that the one created by the Tangipahoa Parish "is not sufficiently neutral." In their appeal, lawyers for the school board said the disclaimer encouraged diversity. "The central message of the disclaimer resolution is that there are no outsiders or insiders, no one who is favored or disfavored, on the issue of life's origin, but persons of all viewpoints are full members in the school community." The No Coment Zone Millionaire high-tech investor Ralph Nader, the presidential candidate of the Green Party, last week asked a federal court to stop several companies-including AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, and Sun Microsystems-from sponsoring this fall's presidential debates. The FCC has approved such corporate sponsorship. Financial disclosures from Mr. Nader, a self-styled consumer advocate, reveal that he is worth almost $4 million. He owns nearly $1.2 million in stock in Cisco Systems and smaller amounts of five other technology-related companies. Leftist firebrand Lenora Fulani quit as co-chair of the presidential campaign of Reform Party hopeful Pat Buchanan, saying the ex-Republican is too socially conservative. Ms. Fulani and Mr. Buchanan are on the opposite end of the political spectrum on many issues, but agree on international trade and foreign policy. Christian music singer Michael English surrendered to authorities on drug charges and was immediately released on bond. The 38-year-old singer faces 12 counts of fraudulently obtaining the prescription drug hydrocodone, a sedative similar to codeine. Police raided Mr. English's Nashville apartment in February after an investigation showed he and a friend were having numerous prescriptions filled by doctors. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in game 6 of the NBA Championship series last week, capturing the NBA title. Hundreds of Lakers fans "celebrated" by torching two police cars, vandalizing downtown L.A. businesses, and setting dozens of small bonfires in city streets. Police arrested 12 fans, and at least another dozen suffered minor injuries. Former Lakers star and current Lakers Vice President Magic Johnson condemned the violence: "That takes away from what happened here tonight." Procter & Gamble is standing by its decision to keep its ads off Laura Schlessinger's television show. (WORLD, June 3.) Representatives from pro-family groups had met with P&G management in mid-June, asking the company to reconsider its stand. Company spokeswoman Gretchen Briscoe said that the company is squeamish about Dr. Laura's views not only on homosexuality but on divorce and mothers working outside the home, preferring "to avoid those kinds of controversies." P&G spends nearly $3 billion a year on advertising, including spots on such controversial shows as Fox's Ally McBeal.
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