'65 percent solution' touted for Fla. school budgets


Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 11:10 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 11:10 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Conservatives and libertarians nationwide tout the "65 percent solution," an enticing, simple and some say deceptive school budgeting concept, as a way to increase classroom spending without raising taxes.

The idea is to require schools to spend 65 percent of their budgets on classroom expenses as opposed to administrative costs. It's been pushed for three years but has sputtered nationally, with only Georgia and Texas adopting it.

Undeterred, backers have focused on Florida, where the measure has earned a place on the November ballot but is being challenged. Approval in Florida, supporters believe, could spur more states to do the same.

"The administrators are fighting this tooth and nail," said Tim Mooney, a spokesman for First Class Education, an organization formed in Washington to promote the idea.

The plan has drawn opposition from teachers, school boards and the national PTA. Financial research and rating firm Standard & Poor's released a study in 2005 that found no relationship between student achievement and the percentage of a school's budget spent in the classroom.

Whatever momentum the idea had faded quickly because of the S&P study and a growing national focus on student achievement measured by standardized tests, said Mike Griffith, with the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States.

There's also disagreement over how classroom spending should be defined.

Federal statistics show school districts nationally spend an average of 66 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction and related expenses and about 11 percent on purely administrative costs. They also spend 5 percent on support services such as libraries, school nurses and guidance counselors and 18 percent on transportation, food services, maintenance and other operational costs.

But First Class Education counts teacher training, transportation, food services, counselors, nurses and librarians as administrative costs. Under the group's definition, classroom spending includes athletics and other extracurriculars, plus teacher salaries and supplies.

Sixty-five percent was set as the goal because a quarter of the nation's school districts could meet it when the campaign was launched, Mooney said.

But only four states New York, Maine, Tennessee and Utah then met the standard statewide.

Texas and Georgia closely follow the group's criteria. Florida's proposal would leave the definition of classroom spending up to the Legislature.

Critics note that rural districts typically have higher busing costs while poor ones spend more on food. Many school officials say those functions are vital but not considered classroom expenses under the 65 percent solution.

Jackie Lain, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, said his state's districts are struggling to meet the requirement without raising taxes as fuel and food costs rise.

"You can't educate kids if they are not there," Lain said. "You can't educate hungry children."

Georgia and Texas officials say their programs are too new to assess.

Lawmakers in at least a dozen states have rejected the concept, including Utah, the home state of Internet retail entrepreneur Patrick Byrne, who came up with the idea and founded First Class Education.

Voters in Colorado defeated a 65 percent proposal in 2006, the same year sponsors abandoned petition drives in Arizona, Oregon and Washington state. The Oklahoma Supreme Court threw a 65 percent proposal off the ballot last year.

Kansas has embraced the concept as a goal, not a requirement. The state's deputy education commissioner, Dale Dennis, said it has been effective in getting school boards to discuss ways to meet the target without tying their hands.

In response to the push, Louisiana requires school systems to spend at least 70 percent of their budgets at the school building level including the salary of the principal and other administrators and no more than 30 percent on the central office.

Lloyd Dressel, finance officer for the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the requirement has had no effect on school budgets because most systems already divvied up their funds that way.

The Florida Legislature also declined to pass the 65 percent solution in 2006, but the proposal was put on November's ballot by the appointed Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

It's being used to sugarcoat a school voucher provision in the same proposed state constitutional amendment, said Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

Polls show a majority of Florida voters oppose vouchers but like the 65 percent solution by an even bigger margin.

"People think that perhaps spending at least 65 percent in the classroom is a good thing, and it is," Meyer said. "The point is we're spending more than 65 percent in the classroom already. What we need to be doing is continuing to up the resources and not simply cut the pie differently."

The union and other opponents are suing to remove Amendment 9 and another pro-voucher proposal, Amendment 7, from the ballot.

Mooney, a Republican political consultant, said his group doesn't want to impose draconian penalties for missing the mark but that districts should have to explain how they are spending taxpayer dollars.

"If you can't get 65 percent, give us the reasons why," Mooney said.

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