New rules adopted recently in Texas and Georgia–and being considered in at least 10 other states–could force school systems in those states to cut back their spending on IT staffing and infrastructural needs, among other administrative expenses, as they seek to comply with a mandate to allocate 65 percent of their operating budgets for instruction.

Texas and Georgia are among the first states to have adopted the so-called “65-percent solution,” a nationwide movement that purportedly aims to make public schools more financially efficient. Billed by its supporters as a way to boost student achievement by funneling more resources into the classroom, the movement calls for 65 cents of every school dollar to be spent on what the National Center for Education Statistics defines as “classroom expenditures,” such as teachers’ salaries and instructional supplies.

Spearheading the movement is a nonprofit organization called First Class Education. In an interview with eSchool News, Tim Mooney, a spokesman for the group, said the 65-percent rule is meant to encourage schools to exercise more restraint and responsibility when dipping into the public trust.

“Taxpayer dollars are precious, and we need to make sure that we are spending them wisely,” Mooney said.

But while that might sound good in theory, there is no proof that shifting more dollars from other parts of the budget to the classroom will improve student performance, critics of the movement say.

So far, Georgia and Texas are the only two states to enact versions of the rule, but the movement has picked up steam in other states as well. Lawmakers in Kansas and Louisiana recently passed “non-binding” rules that encourage schools to work toward the 65-percent threshold, but do not penalize them for falling short of it. Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington also have considered proposals to adopt the measure, though lawmakers in these states had not approved any plans as of press time.

“The classroom is the hub of learning. There are a lot of infrastructure needs, from food service to transportation to administration, but the classroom is where the learning really takes place,” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, told The Weekly community newspaper when he signed that state’s measure into law in April.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican, has signed an executive order enforcing the 65-percent rule in his state, even though it was not passed by his state’s legislature, because he believes it will improve student achievement.

Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley agreed.

“Schools are often the biggest business in town,” wrote Neeley in a statement endorsing the governor’s decision. “The public wants to know that their tax dollars are well spent, but citizens do not turn out in large numbers for public hearings on school district budgets or tax rates. This provision gives school officials the chance to show their public in a high-profile manner that they are efficiently and effectively using their public funds.”

In Texas, the plan calls for a three-year phase-in period, with districts required to spend at least 55 percent of their operating budgets on instructional costs in 2006-07, 60 percent in 2007-08, and 65 percent in 2008-09 to receive full credit under this indicator in the state’s rating system.

In Georgia, school districts already meeting or exceeding state student achievement standards reportedly will be allowed to apply for an exemption from the rule, known throughout the state as SB390. Like Texas, Georgia also plans to phase in the requirement gradually.

In both states, school systems unable to meet the requirements set forth under the law can apply for a waiver.

Despite its political momentum, the rule has drawn sharp criticism from school leaders in the states that are implementing it.

Calling the plan “nothing more than a political ploy,” Rickey Williams, superintendent of the Devine Independent School District in Texas, questioned Perry’s motivation for passing the measure under executive order. Though the idea of pumping more money into classrooms is a good way to win votes in an election year, he said, the reality is that several school systems likely will suffer from the law’s rigid spending structure.

Though classroom computers would be counted under the 65-percent rule, the servers, switches, wiring, and other equipment needed to power the networks these machines run on likely would not.

In Devine–a relatively poor school system, with four campuses and just north of 2,000 students–officials rely on the district’s operating budget to build up its technology infrastructure. “Any type of technology upgrade … or trying to retrofit our campuses for current and future technological needs … we rely on our operational budget to do that,” Williams said. Under the new rule, however, the school system no longer would have that flexibility.

Unlike wealthier school districts that have the financial clout to raise additional capital for technology-related projects through bond measures, tax hikes, or other alternative sources of funding, Williams said, poorer school systems traditionally have more limited means.

Though the rule, at least in Texas, would not take money away from school systems that fail to meet the 65-percent classroom threshold, it would subject school systems to a potentially poor rating on the state’s Financial Integrity Rating System, said Suzzane Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The metric, which is a public record, uses 26 indicators to measure the financial efficiency of neighborhood schools. By failing to meet the provision sketched out in Texas’s version of the 65-percent rule, Marchman said, school systems run the risk of being labeled by their local communities as fiscally irresponsible.

But opponents of the legislation, including the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), say forcing schools to spend 65 percent of their operating budgets on classroom expenditures, without first reviewing their needs on a case-by-case basis, would be just as irresponsible.

“A one-size-fits-all standard, as the governor proposes, ignores important differences among students and school districts,” wrote the organization in a report published last year.

CPPP researchers say the rule could have “some unintended consequences”–problems that could open the door to “unnecessary spending.”

For example, if school leaders wanted to add, say, an IT support staffer, a guidance counselor, or some other expense not covered under the 65-percent rule, they would be forced to spend additional funds on classroom expenditures as well, thus ensuring that the proper classroom-to-administration spending ratio was maintained, wrote the organization in its report.

“This rule will restrict our school board’s discretion to use funds,” Devine’s Williams concluded.

Georgia school leaders who spoke with eSchool News agreed. “We’ve always been of the mind that local spending decisions for education should be made locally,” said Jay Dillon, director of communications for Georgia’s Cobb County School District.

Serving more than 100,000 students across 110 school buildings, Cobb County is the second largest school district in Georgia behind metropolitan Atlanta. Though several of the district’s schools already are close to the 65-percent threshold, Dillon said, the legislation could force some schools to “make some very significant changes” in how they budget for classroom expenditures.

The debate over what expenditures should be covered under the 65-percent umbrella has been a major sticking point in several states.

In April, the TEA released a statement revising the initial legislation enacted by Perry. Under the revised proposal, the agency said, the cost of school librarians would be covered as a classroom expense. The original bill as signed by Perry had excluded librarians. Officials say there also is a movement to include the cost of guidance counselors under the provision, but a final decision won’t be made until an initial public comment period closes in July.

Many school leaders believe IT infrastructure and support personnel should be counted in the formula as well.

Though the majority of schools across her district already operate at or above the 65-percent threshold, Alice Owen, executive director of technology for the Irving Independent School District in Texas, said technology expenditures–for any school system–are essential to effective learning.

“Everything we do in technology impacts classrooms instruction,” Owen explained. “Online curriculum, online grading, online assessment, teacher eMail … impact the classroom every day and are vital to the work we do.”

Advocates of the 65-percent rule have continued to push for its adoption, even as an independent Standard & Poor’s study examining the proposal contends no direct link exists between the amount of money being spent in classrooms and overall student achievement.

“Allocating more money to instruction is a laudable goal,” wrote S&P researchers in the firm’s fall 2005 evaluation of the proposal. “However, mandating a specific funding allocation is not likely to provide a ‘silver bullet’ solution to raising student achievement.”

That’s not to say funding isn’t an important part of the education puzzle, researchers said. Rather, what they found was that the amount of money districts spend in the classroom compared with other places might vary dramatically from district to district “for legitimate reasons.”

Those reasons have prompted the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, to publicly denounce the 65-percent rule–a counterintuitive position, considering the movement promotes the use of funds for increasing teacher pay.

“In reality … the 65-percent initiative is no solution at all,” said the AFT in a position paper about the proposal. “Rather, it is 100-percent deception, a simplistic and arbitrary gimmick that will actually harm schools and students.”

Other organizations, including the National PTA and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, also oppose the idea.

Proponents of the 65-percent rule say the concerns of its critics are overblown.

“We are not saying that things outside of the classroom are not important,” First Class’s Mooney said. “Remember, there is still 35 percent left over in the budget for these things.”

Links:

First Class Education
http://www.firstclasseducation.org/

Gov. Rick Perry
http://www.governor.state.tx.us/

Gov. Sonny Perdue
http://www.gov.state.ga.us/

Georgia Department of Education
http://public.doe.k12.ga.us/

Texas Education Agency
http://www.tea.state.tx.us/

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/index.jsp/

Columnist Nora Carr on ’65-percent solution’
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6246