Monday, March 23, 2009

Lawmakers aim to scrap rule that schools must spend 65 percent on instruction

Governor indicates he would accept change if goals can still be met.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gov. Rick Perry's 4-year-old mandate that schools spend at least 65 percent of their money on classroom instruction is under fire from key lawmakers in Perry's own party.

Perry, a Republican, indicated that he's open to scrapping the rule if the state can find a better way to measure school efficiency.

"It was an arbitrary number, but it was a very good level," Perry said Monday. "Times change, and people that don't change generally get left behind."

Asked what had changed, Perry said, "We'll let it work its way through the process, and you'll see all the pros and cons."

The mandate has never been popular with school districts, and schools haven't suffered much of a penalty for not meeting it.

Still, the 65 percent push has been one of Perry's signature education initiatives. In a 2006 campaign ad, he said, "We've accomplished a lot, but we still can do more. That's why we're directing schools to spend at least 65 percent of their money on classroom instruction."

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, filed legislation last week to erase the requirement. And though Perry defended the standard as the right thing to do at the time, he said he's working with Eissler to come up with "new ideas to make our schools even more efficient."

Eissler said he filed House Bill 2262 because the standard has not been feasible for districts that vary in enrollment and geographic size.

"There are better ways to measure instructional priorities," Eissler said. "Why don't we look at the school districts that are doing the best and see how they're spending the money?"

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she also wants to repeal Perry's order. "Many of the school districts cannot meet that mandate," Shapiro said. "There are so many other activities and so many other things that are not included in that 65 percent that it skews the numbers."

Perry and his staff did not criticize the rule as strongly as Eissler and Shapiro. Allison Castle, a Perry spokeswoman, said he wants to scrap it only if it can be replaced with something that "maintains or strengthens the goals of the 65 percent rule."

Perry used a 2005 executive order to put the rule in place after lawmakers failed in their regular session and two special sessions that year to change the state's school finance system. "Even though the Legislature did not act, I will," he said then.

But state officials found "classroom instruction" a difficult term to define. In fact, schools have been required to meet two separate standards.

One standard requires schools to spend 65 percent on instruction as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics. But that requirement has been phased in, starting with a 55 percent standard two years ago. This is the first year that schools are required to hit 65 percent under that definition.

Two years ago, the most recent year for which the Texas Education Agency has data, none of the seven districts in Travis County spent at least 65 percent on instruction as defined by that standard.

Schools also have been required over the past few years to spend 65 percent on instruction as defined by former Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley. Her definition allows schools to count spending on counselors, librarians and nurses.

Each definition counts for three points in the school's 85-point financial rating system for school districts. In other words, there has been little penalty for not meeting the 65 percent threshold, provided that a district's overall finances are generally in order.

Districts facing higher fuel and insurance costs have had to raise money to put into classroom instruction if they want to comply with the Perry mandate, said Jacqueline Lain of the Texas Association of School Boards. And that has caused some to raise their local tax rates because per-student state spending on education has remained relatively flat over the past few years, she said.

"Our folks have felt like it's a hoop to jump through without meaning," Lain said.

Eissler, calling the 65 percent rule a good start, said there might be a better way to look at instructional spending that takes a district's unique characteristics into account.

"The governor is fine," Eissler said. "He just wants to see better efficiency and as many resources as possible going to the classroom, and so do I."

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