Classroom funding

Monday, November 14, 2005

There is a national debate over whether more spending is the key to better schools. The oft-repeated mantra of fiscal conservatives is that some of the worst school systems in America are those who spend the most per pupil.

But how are school districts spending their money?

Proponents of a growing effort throughout the United States say too many districts spend too much of whatever financial resources they have on the wrong things. After studying states where schools get the most bang for their bucks, these proponents are pushing what is being called the 65 percent plan. This calls for 65 percent of a school district's operating budget to be spent in the classroom

The 65 percent plan is the heart of Gov. Matt Blunt's proposed law, Our Students First/First-Class Education for Missourians, which he promoted last week during a statewide tour. The aim of the law is better classroom instruction without a tax increase.

Backers of the plan use a definition of classroom expenses developed by the U.S. Department of Education. It includes teacher salaries and benefits, textbooks, supplies, special education, language arts, music, drama, band and athletics.

Of the three largest districts in this area, only the Scott City School District currently meets the goal of the 65 percent plan. Scott City spends nearly 66 percent on classroom instruction. Under the proposed law, districts that do not meet that level of spending would be expected to move toward that goal in annual increments of 2 percentage points. Of Missouri's 524 districts, only 112 are above the 65 percent level.

Reaction from school administrators and schools boards has been, as might be expected, cool. Several school officials have responded by observing that the state provides only a portion of school funding, while the rest of the revenue is generated through local taxes. So why, they ask, should the state tell districts how to spend their money?

The over-arching concern, proponents of the 65 percent plan say, is to make sure enough money is going toward the basic necessities of classroom teaching. Missing from Blunt's proposal is an accounting of where he believes districts are currently misspending the dollars they have.

If proponents of the 65 percent plan believe too much money is paying for administrators, they should say so, and develop a rationale for how districts can get by with fewer administrators -- or other expenses outside the classroom -- and still meet standards imposed by state and federal requirements.

So far, the 65 percent plan has been adopted or proposed in 17 states. There is a national push to get the plan in place in all 50 states by 2008. Whether or not 65 percent is the right target for Missouri remains to be seen. But this is the time for supporters of the plan, administrators and school board members to share their thoughts in the interest of educating the public. This is the time for letters to the editor and guest op-columns to be filled with good arguments on both sides.

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