Political operatives have opened a new front in the war on public education.

Dubbed the “65-percent solution,” the well-financed campaign to overhaul school funding is part of a partisan national strategy designed to split teachers and administrators in a fight for scarce education dollars. Simply put, it calls for legislation requiring 65 percent of school district budgets to be spent directly in the classroom.

The real election-year targets are pro-education suburban moms who want public schools “fixed, not replaced,” thus effectively blocking the crusade for vouchers, charter schools, and other public school alternatives.

Although the group’s fundraising web site, First Class Education, says the campaign is a grassroots school funding initiative, an internal memo shows otherwise.

Chaired by voucher proponent and Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, the effort is clearly focused on unseating Democratic governors or challengers in key states such as Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, and Oklahoma.

However, the campaign has several “tangential political advantages,” according to organizers.

Outlined in cynical detail, these goals include “splitting the education union” by pitting “administrators and teachers at odds with each other,” “predisposing” targeted voters to support “voucher and charter school proposals,” establishing “the debate on taxes” by highlighting public education’s “inefficiencies,” and providing Republicans with “greater credibility on public-education issues.”

The real agenda, however, might be spelled out in benefit No. 4, which “allows the use of unlimited non-personal money for political positioning advantages.”

Written by First Class’s executive director, Tim Mooney, the memo also advises groups to set up 501(c)(4) organizations, so “The aforementioned benefits can be achieved with funding in any amount and from any source. In the era of campaign finance limitations on candidates, PACs, and parties, galvanizing an electorate via the initiative process is a tremendous opportunity.”

Although the memo’s posting on blogs and online news sites is draining the group’s credibility faster than a quick lube job on a dirty engine, more than 25 states have active “65-percent solution” candidates or groups pushing the initiative.

Studies by respected, non-partisan organizations such as Standard & Poor’s and the Economic Policy Institute have shown the solution won’t do anything to improve public education. Yet a Harris Interactive poll shows between 70 percent and 80 percent of the public favors the measure.

Why? The siren song of the sound bite is too hard to resist. Supporters promise better public schools without a tax increase, and they dismiss substantive concerns by professional educators and grassroots advocates as corrupt Tammany Hall protectors of the status quo.

Politicians, talk show radio hosts, and TV news reporters don’t seem to care that there aren’t any data or research that support the “65-percent solution”–intuitively, it sounds right, and it provides yet another springboard for public-school bashing, the nation’s new national pastime.

Proponents fail to mention that school librarians, guidance counselors, speech therapists, school nurses, teacher training, principals, school security, transportation, child nutrition, and other vital services aren’t included in the 65-percent solution.

Apparently, getting kids to school safely and keeping them safe once they get there aren’t nearly as important as cutting taxes.

Who needs a full stomach to learn, or a well-equipped library to foster reading and research? Why worry about school guidance counselors when the teen suicide rate is skyrocketing–or when the most dangerous place in America for most children isn’t their local public school, but their own home?

Keep taxes flat, classroom sizes high, bust the bureaucracy, and pay the remaining teachers more … and student achievement will soar.

But don’t upset soccer moms, arts advocates, special-ed parents, and the sports juggernaut–they’re too politically savvy and too well-connected to dismiss.

As Mooney’s memo notes, “For political reasons, it is very helpful that athletics, arts, music, field trips, and instruction and tuition for special-needs students are included in the NCES ‘in the classroom spending’ definition. This will deny the validity to the opponent’s arguments of ‘Johnny won’t be able to play football, Jane won’t learn the violin, and Joe’s special-needs instruction won’t be possible.'”

Nor do proponents seem to understand that 81 percent of all school budgets already go to personnel, particularly classroom teachers and other instructional staff.

And, the states that already spend 65 percent of every dollar allocated on the classroom (using a 30-year-old definition of instructional staff)–Utah, Tennessee, New York, and Maine–aren’t considered the nation’s top performers when it comes to student achievement.

The hard truth is that educating all children at high levels is tough, complex, time-consuming work–work that no other country or civilization in world history has even attempted.

And, while private and parochial schools certainly have an important role in educating young people, only public schools take all comers, no matter where they live, how they learn, or who their parents are.

Quick fixes–whether it’s mandating that 65 cents of every education dollar goes to the classroom, giving each child a laptop, wiping out teacher unions, or dismantling central administrations–simply don’t work.

At best, such electioneering distracts time, attention, and dollars from the real work of improving teaching and learning for all children, especially those who live in poverty, don’t speak English, have a disability, lack supportive parents, or face other complex learning challenges.

Worse, each sound bite grenade erodes public confidence in public schools–and the public’s respect for public-school educators.

This, at a time when non-partisan research shows public schools are performing better, with all demographic groups, than ever before.

As a public-school advocate, my greatest fear is that we will become what people already say we are.

Just as children are what we expect them to be, public schools will be what the community believes they are.

Urban schools are simply the canaries in the coalmine. It’s only a matter of time before the bunkers in the sound-bite war are moved to suburbs and out to the farms.

Data and sound educational research should drive school reform, not intuition. Intuitively, as a parent, I like the notion of smaller, more personalized high schools.

However, as an education reporter, I know that the research supporting this high-cost solution is sketchy at best. Kids might be happier, but are they learning more?

Before we invest millions of public dollars into smaller schools, there should be concrete evidence that these schools will yield stronger student achievement, especially for at-risk students.

It’s time–way past time–for educators to reclaim the agenda for the nation’s public schools. It’s time that educators start speaking out about what works–and what doesn’t–in our schools, and why.

News-driven web sites and blogs exposed First Class Education’s true motives. Why not turn the tables and use your web site to share solid education research and data with parents and policy makers?

According to James Lukaszewski, one of the nation’s top public-relations gurus, school leaders can start winning the sound-bite war by using internet postings and eMail to strategically neutralize inaccurate news reporting and talk-show rants.

He advises clients to post an offending article or news clip transcript on the left-hand side of a web page with the inaccurate or misleading information in bold. Then use the right-hand side of the page to “correct and clarify” what’s wrong with the real facts.

Lukaszewski then has clients eMail the information to key stakeholders. The strategy is deceptively simple, and it works because it fights emotion with facts–in real time.

“This strategic approach simply takes the media out of the loop, because we correct anything they do,” says Lukaszewski. “Rather than tear our hair out about what the media does, we wait until the junk comes down–and then we fix it.”

Lukaszewski also advises CEOs and other executives to tape every media interview and then post these on a web site so employees and community members can read, view, or listen to the entire transcript. “If reporters refuse to be taped, then we don’t do the interview,” says Lukaszewski, noting that the strategy is changing how journalists and editors approach his clients. “When people can listen to the whole interview and make up their own minds, reporters can no longer bully you and get away with it. If you put it up there, people will recognize what they’re doing.”

Another strategy Lukaszewski has used successfully for public-sector clients includes buying full-page, issue-oriented ads in the local newspaper and paying for additional circulation for the day the ad appears, so every household has access to the information.

To ensure full disclosure, the client’s name appears in the newspaper’s masthead where circulation is listed.

Lukaszewski says better public-relations strategy would help superintendents and other school leaders regain control of their own destinies–and the public’s agenda on education.

School leaders should focus on communicating what’s essential and work closely with those directly affected by their decisions, especially teachers, students, staff, and parents.

“Truth is 15 percent fact and 85 percent perception,” says Lukaszewski. “We need to build the power of the leader and build an information base in the community that is unassailable.”

Nora Carr writes the Stakeholder and Community Relations column for the eSchool News print newspaper.


First Class Education

The Lukaszewski Group

National School Public Relations Association