Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
Drugs are not the only issue giving rise to gimmicky fixes. The hottest idea in education funding right now is what's known as "the 65 percent solution." A group called First Class Education is promoting legislation that would require school districts to use 65 percent of their funds for classroom instruction. Most states currently fall a few percentage points short of that. Forcing all of them to hit 65 is an idea with some appeal, and it's already been embraced by a number of governors, legislators and initiative campaigns.
The Kansas legislature set 65 percent as a goal in its school finance package this year and may make it a mandate in 2006. Texas Governor Rick Perry ordered districts to come up with ways of reaching the same threshold within the next few years, although he suspended the requirement in the face of other logistical hurdles created by the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Why 65 percent? It's hard to say. Even the First Class Education people can't come up with any evidence that 65 is a magic number, or that the handful of jurisdictions that already divide their funding in just this way perform particularly well. Advocates claim that reaching the target nationwide would allow the hiring of 300,000 more teachers, without costing taxpayers an extra dime. But that clearly wouldn't happen.
A more likely scenario is that squabbling would start immediately about the definition of just what exactly constitutes classroom instruction. Meanwhile, central-office school bureaucracies would fight to retain their own funds and might look at cutting food, transportation, maintenance and other services kids need. To say that nobody would lose out under a rigid 65 percent rule is disingenuous.
On the other hand, the opponents of the scheme sound a bit disingenuous themselves. They argue that if we just spent more money on schools, there'd be no need for redistribution of funds. "We need to increase school funding in our state, not shift it around," insists the Washington Education Association. But arguments like that threaten to drown out legitimate discussion of just how each dollar earmarked for education ought to be used. In the past few years, there has been plenty of debate about accountability and standardized testing, and heartfelt pleas for more money, but very little debate on which expenditures--higher salaries, classroom computers or anything else-- lead to measurably better results.
"It's just as important to have the dialogue about how you're spending the money, and not just the amount you're spending," says state Representative Adam Hasner, who is sponsoring his own version of the 65 percent legislation in Florida. Hasner may not have the right solution, but there's no doubt he's asking a good question. It's important to examine where education dollars could best be spent. As the 65 percent idea spreads to more states, here's hoping it's embraced as an opportunity to embark upon just such a debate, rather than remaining a forum for simple-minded posturing by the spokesmen for both sides.