Fuzzy Math

Lost amidst all the punditeering about the potential Democratic resurgence today is the possibility that an ill-advised education scheme touted by a conservative group could also find new life, as the result of a pending Colorado ballot initiative. The education funding proposal known as the “65 percent solution” is misleading at best, and seriously (perhaps deliberately) harmful to public education at worst.

On its face, the 65 percent proposal seems benign enough. Its supporters, led by a small but well financed group called First Class Education (FCE), claim it is an effort to spend more -- a minimum of 65 percent -- of public education dollars on classroom instruction. Amendment 39 in Colorado would stipulate that each school district spend that minimum percentage of operational expenditures on specified classroom expenses, to be confirmed by audit at the end of the school year. As FCE suggests, “classroom education is the only activity that can possibly increase test scores and dynamically impact our students.” Who could argue with that goal? Actually, anyone who cares about public schools, it turns out. That's because FCE's definition of “classroom instruction” is limiting and dangerous.

FCE bases its criteria for “classroom instruction” on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definition of “Instruction Expenditures.” There are several problems with this approach -- both logistical and factual. The most obvious logistical problem is that the FCE formula leaves out the other education funding categories used by NCES, which include vital student and instruction support services. In other words, if you vote for this “classroom” funding plan, you will be voting to include things like athletic activities, team uniforms, and field trips, but eliminate or reduce school funds for educational tools that provide critical classroom support. Services like school libraries, student transportation, school custodial services, school nurses, and food and nutrition programs are just a few of the important support systems that would be left behind. Under the 65 percent plan, funds would merely be shifted from one area to another, leaving an underfunded school system still underfunded -- just underfunded in different ways.

The factual failing was revealed in two research studies done by the nonpartisan Standard & Poor's education arm, School Evaluation Services. The studies found that “student performance does not noticeably or consistently increase at 65 percent or any other percentage spent on education.” It's not that money doesn't matter, it's just that you can't create an arbitrary amount or mandatory minimum and make it work. It's especially ludicrous to impose a one-size-fits-all formula on a subject that should be -- and always has been -- dealt with individually by states and school districts. After all, the costs of educating children are different depending on where there schools are located -- urban or rural areas, wealthy or poor districts, even hot or cold climates. How could -- and why would -- anyone want to calculate those costs in such an inflexible fashion?

The answer, it turns out unsurprisingly, is politics. As revealed in an FCE memorandum distributed to supporters, the real goals of these initiatives are to divide the education community and “win over large segments of the voting public -- especially suburban affluent women voters.” “Every time the education establishment attacks this proposal, it hurts its standing with the public and the majority of its membership." The memo goes on to say that once the First Class Education proposal is in place, “targeted segments of voters may be more greatly predisposed to supporting voucher and other charter school proposals.” Moreover, the campaign is designed to distract attention and money from the real issues involved in improving education, as the memo makes clear: “Every day and every dollar the education establishment uses to defeat this proposal is a day and a dollar they cannot spend on other political activities." The goals of the compaign, which include increasing Republicans' credibility on education, can be achieved through the use of “unlimited non personal money for political positioning advantages.” This approach is not surprising given that the man bankrolling the initiative, Patrick Byrne, is a board member of the free market, pro-voucher Milton and Rose D. Freedman Foundation.

The good news is that although the 65 percent initiative gained some traction in various states early on, its success (and the resulting damage to public schools) has largely been limited. As understanding of the funding scheme increased, sentiment against it grew. Even many conservatives, including former Bush Secretary of Education Rodney Paige, conservative education activist and former Reagan assistant education secretary Chester Finn, and noted voucher advocate Jay Greene have acknowledged the initiative's folly and come out against it. (Greene called it the “65 cent delusion.”) As a result, 14 states have rejected it. Two, Texas and Kansas, have passed watered-down versions, and only one state, Georgia, has enacted it.

Unfortunately, some big name conservatives, including George Will, continue to push the ballot effort, and if the initiative in Colorado passes, it could provide new enthusiasm both for this ill-advised “solution” and the political machinery that has championed it.

The threat from these kinds of schemes extends beyond the mere possibility of them passing, however. Whenever the public has been confronted with a choice between privatizing or radically altering the public education system or providing strong support for it, the public has chosen the latter approach. That's why voucher schemes have been rejected by community after community. The real danger with these kinds of right-wing-funded initiatives is that they require significant time and resources to defeat -- effort and money that could be better spent on strengthening the public schools themselves.

Alexander Wohl is a former Communications Director for the U.S. Department of Education and speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

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