The 65 Percent Solution; Misappropriating School-Reform Money

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

The 65 Percent Solution; Misappropriating School-Reform Money


Byline: Frederick M. Hess, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A new fad, called the "65 percent solution," is sweeping through school-reform circles. Eager to answer the education lobby's endless demands for more money, would-be reformers have embraced the idea that school districts should instead better focus existing dollars by spending at least 65 percent of their budgets on classroom expenditures. The idea has an initial, facile appeal. But it deserves a second, more careful look.

Championed by the new organization First Class Education, the proposal has already been adopted in Texas, Louisiana and Kansas, and is before the legislatures of at least 18 other states. Supporters have been undeterred by the absence of evidence that the admittedly arbitrary 65 percent figure has any relationship to school performance or operational efficiency.

The proposal's appeal is largely political. A Harris Interactive poll last fall showed that 70 percent to 80 percent of Americans, of all demographic stripes, endorse the idea. Polling data suggests that the measure can be used to help blunt the appeal of other questionable gimmicks - like mandatory programs to shrink class size. But short-term political appeal is hardly the final measure of a proposal's merit.

Before wrapping themselves in the idea's popularity, however, reformers might want to think twice. In fact, the 65 percent solution focuses attention on dubious input measures and is an invitation to creative accounting. Most troubling, though, is the manner in which it embraces heavy-handed, autocratic management - under the guise of "decentralization" - and endorses one-size-fits-all guidelines.

In an age when some of the most successful public schools are finding ways to serve all students - whether through virtual schooling, supplemental tutoring or hybrid high school-college programs - this accounting exercise promises to stifle creative problem solving. How will tutoring programs or virtual schools, which may have unconventional expenditures, be accounted for? Should that be a barrier to their growth?

There is a real possibility that the 65-percenters will discourage fresh thinking. How will their mandate handle nontraditional school models, where high schoolers might spend much of their time in a laboratory or on a college campus? The 65 percent model would stifle such efforts or reward innovators with a sheaf of new paperwork and legal obligations.

If a "corporate reformer" acquired Wal-Mart and decreed that 65 percent of all revenues be spent on floor staff and in-store improvements, Wall Street would greet him with derision. …

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