Saturday, August 19, 2006

Schools debate classroom spending rules

Texas will soon require schools to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on direct classroom costs. Another interesting experiment. -Angela

Aug 15, 2006
Modified: Aug 15, 2006 3:43 AM
Schools debate classroom spending rules


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Linda Buffe can't imagine taking on another role at work.
She's already the superintendent, bus driver, counselor and special education teacher at the tiny Malone school district near Waco. But now she also has a bit part in a national debate over public school spending.

Texas is one of three states that will soon require schools to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on direct classroom costs such as teachers and textbooks. Several other states also are moving toward adopting the measure. The idea was to spend more money on children without raising taxes.

But Buffe, like educators across the state, is stumped about where she can cut administrative costs.

"I don't know how much more we can cut those services and still maintain what we have to have," Buffe said. "I do a lot of praying."

Internet retail millionaire Patrick Byrne, founder of the political group First Class Education, kickstarted the movement and wants the so-called "65 percent solution" to be implemented in all 50 states by the end of 2008.

It's now required in Georgia, and Louisiana school officials are working on a similar requirement. Petition drives and television ad campaigns have led to ballot referendums this November in Colorado and Oklahoma. Efforts for 2008 ballot referenda are under way in Washington, Arizona, Missouri and Kansas.

Instructional materials such as laptops and field trips are considered classroom costs under the most widely accepted definition. Transportation, counselors and nurses are not.

"It's simply criminal that superintendents are making well above $200,000-a-year, driving Lexuses and BMWs, when teachers are paying for pencils and paper out of their own pockets," said Tim Mooney, spokesman for First Class Education.

Buffe, who makes about $71,000 a year, is among the administrators and educators who have criticized the proposal because there's little scientific research to back up claims that increased classroom spending improves test scores.

"There certainly doesn't seem to be any research that says spending in these categories means students are going to be more successful; it's one-size-fits-all politics," said Richard Kouri, a lobbyist for the Texas State Teachers Association.

Critics say shifting more money into the classroom will mean cuts to other programs, like nursing, counseling and transportation.

"It's a catchy line, a catchy proposal," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States. "On the face of it, it's hard to be against it. It becomes more complicated when you really look into it."

Experts also said the requirement will be tough for small and rural districts.

"Look at some of the big rural isolated districts in Texas; they have really high transportation costs," Fulton said. "There are a lot of differences (among school districts) and Texas is along those lines."

A memo from Mooney to state politicians suggests Republican politics are just as important to the group as the issue.

He claimed the proposal will help policy makers by creating an issue on which school administrators and teachers might disagree. It also could help Republican politicians seem more credible on education issues, eventually helping them adopt more contested policies like private-school vouchers, Mooney said in the memo.

"Once additional fixing and funding of public education can be achieved ... voters may be more greatly predisposed to supporting voucher and charter school proposals, as Republicans address the voting public with greater credibility on public education issues," Mooney wrote.

For Texas, increasing the spending average will redirect about $1 billion into the classroom over the next two years, according to a review of 2004-05 spending data.

That's enough money to give each Texas public school teacher a $4,000 pay raise or hire almost 30,000 new teachers at a salary of $40,000. Or buy an $800 laptop for every public high school student in the state.

But that money might have to be shifted away from such programs as nursing and food services.

"You have to look at the things that might have to be cut by the school district to get to the 65 percent," said Joydeep Roy, an economist who specializes in education issues at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "You're making a choice between things that are going to be cut and instructional services that are going to be added."

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