Tuesday, December 26, 2000

RICHMOND The culture war between Virginia’s conservatives and liberals will focus on public schools in this year’s General Assembly as lawmakers once again try to change the way classrooms are run.

Bills to alter the minute of silence, require all students to observe the Pledge of Allegiance and make them address teachers more formally will be submitted when the legislature convenes Jan. 10.

Delegate Richard H. Black, who plans to submit the bill to require students to address teachers as “Ma’am” or “Sir,” and “Mr.” or “Miss” or “Mrs.,” said he and fellow conservatives are trying to re-establish what they feel has been lost.

“The counterculture revolution of the ‘70s took the war into the classroom. Before that time, public schools were a model of decorum, and then we began this thing we’ve seen play out at Columbine,” said Mr. Black, Loudoun Republican.

Regardless of the beginning, Columbine was a watershed for everyone. Now lawmakers on all sides claim to be trying to fix whatever prompted two students to kill themselves and 13 others at the Littleton, Colo., school in April 1999.

Mr. Black’s bill would require the state’s school systems to create policies to ensure students formally address their teachers.

“It avoids the situation where you have sort of a chummy relationship between student and teacher, and not an authority figure,” he said.

Last session, the legislature passed a bill that required school districts to come up with policies to prohibit political-advocacy pamphlets and the like from being sent home with children.

Local school boards complained that there was no need for a state mandate the localities, they said, could handle it as they saw fit.

But Mr. Black rejects that, saying his neighbors look to him and his fellow lawmakers to act on these issues.

Not everyone is pleased with the legislators’ pro-active approach.

“There’s some frustration that people want to tweak around the edges and do things more symbolic in action,” said Rob Jones, who monitors Virginia government for the Virginia Education Association (VEA), a teachers union.

The changes to school order go both ways, with some liberal lawmakers suggesting tweaking of their own.

Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat, has introduced a bill to strike the word “pray” from the state’s minute of silence provision, which now requires schools to set aside time for public-school students to “meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity.”

It was just this year that lawmakers, at the urging of Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican, made the minute of silence mandatory, and the issue is now pending before the federal courts.

“I think that to eliminate prayer discriminates against prayer, and that’s exactly what [Miss] Darner is doing, and that’s typical of [Miss] Darner, but she represents a certain constituency,” Mr. Barry said.

After the law went into effect, he toured schools and was pleased with the silence requirement. But he saw something else he hopes to correct this session students not observing the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Usually, there were two or three kids that just kind of ignored the entire exercise it was like there was nothing happening around them,” Mr. Barry said.

As a former Marine, he said, it particularly irked him. He is trying to decide whether the law he submits should require students just to stand while others say the Pledge of Allegiance, or require all students to recite it.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union will almost certainly oppose the bills as a violation of students’ rights, said Richard Ferris, the group’s associate director.

Mr. Barry said he understands those concerns.

“As far as I’m concerned they’ve got that right, but not in a tax-supported school,” he said.

Other bills likely to be filed include ones to:

• Require schools to put software on computers to filter the Internet.

• Close the last few loopholes that allow guns on school property for hunters or students who are part of rifle teams.

• Urge schools and other public buildings to post “In God we Trust” somewhere on the property.

Lawmakers also will likely try to alter the state’s Standards of Learning assessments, which have been a battleground for the last five years.

There, again, the educators say the lawmakers aren’t the right ones to be making the rules.

“The biggest problem is so many of the education-reform questions are debated on the political level, and they’re not debated on how this affects the children,” Mr. Jones said.

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