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Opinion: The 65% solution: This is no solution. Let school boards decide.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

By Dr. Carter D. Ward

The 65 percent solution for school funding being proposed by Gov. Matt Blunt is simply a shell game that will do nothing to improve student achievement in Missouri's public schools.

The proposal, which is the creation of Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, would require school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on what the proposal defines as "classroom instruction."

On the surface, this would seem more than reasonable to most people. However, the proposal defines classroom instruction in such a narrow way that services directly supporting students such as counselors, librarians, food services, transportation, health services, speech and pathology services and many other important educational activities are not counted. Coaches are included in the definition, but principals, the instructional leaders for individual school buildings, are not.

The 65% percent solution also flies in the face of local decision making. Surely local boards of education and administrators are in a much better position to make decisions on appropriate budget allocations than state government.

In our diverse state, one size doesn't come close to fitting all school districts when making budget decisions. For example, some school districts in Missouri have a larger geographic area than others. Therefore, they have higher transportation costs. Some school districts in our state have older, less energy efficient buildings than others. Therefore, they have higher utility costs. Districts with a greater concentration of low-income students have to spend more of their budgets on nutrition, health and counseling services than other districts. Small school districts often have a higher percentage of administrative costs than larger districts because they lack the economies of scale that larger districts can achieve.

The 65 percent solution doesn't take these local circumstances into account.

It's instructive to note that of the 178 Missouri school districts awarded Distinction in Performance this year by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, only 35 -- or 20 percent -- currently meet the 65 percent threshold as defined in the proposal. So 80 percent of the high performing districts in the state achieved the state's highest standards of student achievement without reaching the 65 percent spending level as defined in the proposal.

In addition, none of the state's six Blue Ribbon schools recognized by the U.S. Department of Education this year for outstanding performance is in a district that met the 65 percent threshold.

Clearly, school boards and administrators know best how to make spending decisions that will result in superior academic achievement. These and many other school districts in Missouri are doing something right.

Education is not about spending percentages. Education today is about ensuring that our students reach high standards of achievement. The evidence shows there is no correlation between the percent spent on the proposal's narrow definition of classroom instruction and student performance.

Let's let communities through their locally elected boards of education make budget decisions that are best for their students. Let's recognize the 65 percent solution for what it is, no solution at all.

Dr. Carter D. Ward is executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association in Jefferson City, Mo.


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