Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Education Order Fits Group's Agenda

This piece ties the 65% rule to the privatization agenda. This is pretty illuminating. Read on. -Angela

Effort seeks 65% of money for classsrooms, as Perry has decreed
By Jason Embry
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

In a television commercial that has run in Arizona, a teacher points toward a chalkboard, children diligently flip through notebooks and a narrator says the state needs to spend more money in its classrooms.

Halfway across the country, a commercial urging more spending in Minnesota classrooms featured the same teacher, the same children and almost the same message.

A little-known group called First Class Education paid for the commercials in both states as part of its nationwide effort to see that school districts spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on classroom expenses, such as teacher salaries, student computers and after-school activities. But documents obtained by the Austin American-Statesman indicate that the group also hopes that the issue will create rivalries between teachers and administrators while boosting Republicans' political credibility on education issues, making it easier for them to build support for charter schools and private school vouchers.

Nowhere does the effort to limit nonclassroom spending have more momentum than in Texas.

Gov. Rick Perry ordered last week that the state require schools to meet the 65 percent threshold, phased in over several years, and Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley quickly assembled a panel of school superintendents to help determine what that means. Although officials in other states have discussed a 65 percent rule, Perry is the first governor to use an executive order to get there.

Politically, it is an easy sell: Instead of raising taxes to put more money into classrooms, schools should spend less on administrators' salaries and other costs that are not directly tied to teaching.

"Until we have the 65-cent solution in place, voters and parents are not going to support more money without some (assurance) that the increase in money is going to be properly spent," said Tim Mooney, an Arizona political consultant who works for First Class Education.

But critics say the plan takes power away from local school boards, risking that they will spend too little on counselors, libraries or security. In Texas, the debate comes at a time when a state judge has said the state spends an unconstitutionally small amount of money on schools.

"Applying an arbitrary standard to 1,000 school districts across a state as diverse as Texas is a mistake," said Brock Gregg of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said the "starting point" for the superintendents trying to determine what constitutes classroom instruction will be the definition used by the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education. That definition includes salaries for teachers and their aides, classroom supplies and school activities such as football and band.

The center's statistics focus on operating expenses and not capital projects such as new schools.

Using the national center's numbers, Texas spends 60.4 percent of its operating dollars on instruction. According to First Class Education, that ranks Texas 33rd in the nation.

The Arizona-based group, saying only four states now meet the 65 percent threshold, says every state and Washington, D.C., should make that threshold a requirement by 2008. And the group has made some headway. The Louisiana legislature passed a resolution this year encouraging state officials to implement the 65 percent requirement, and Mooney said he hopes that the issue will be on the ballot for public approval in at least 10 states next year.

A First Class Education memo obtained by the Austin American-Statesman lists a series of "political benefits" of putting the 65 percent plan on the ballot. The memo says the plan will create divisions within education unions as dollars flow from administrators to teachers, and it says the plan will divert dollars away from other political goals of the "education establishment."

Citing voter trends, it also says the plan can help build support for voucher and charter school proposals, which critics say take money away from public schools.

"Women in particular want public education fixed, not replaced," it says. "Once additional fixing and funding of public education can be achieved via the First Class Education proposal, targeted segments of 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."

The document speaks specifically to the political benefits of having the 65 percent rule on a public ballot, which is not an immediate issue in Texas because Perry has already ordered the change.

Mooney would neither confirm nor deny Monday that the document came from his group.

Aware that education is always a key issue in elections, Mooney said he took the 65 percent idea earlier this year to Patrick Byrne, the 42-year-old president of Inc., an online retailer. Mooney said he chose Byrne because he had been a vocal supporter of "school choice," a term frequently used by advocates of vouchers and charter schools.

Byrne has contributed at least $100,000 to the group and become its public face. Mooney would not pinpoint the amount or identify other funders.

Officials with the group and said Byrne was unavailable for comment.

The 65 percent proposal was part of legislation in the Texas House and Senate this year to change the state's school finance system. That effort ultimately failed.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Monday that she had no interaction with Mooney's group and that she heard about the 65 percent rule from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advocates smaller government. Her House counterpart, Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, said he did not recall any interaction with First Class Education and that a House colleague first suggested the 65 percent cap a couple of years ago.

"This is an idea that comes from our constituents, our Rotary clubs, our service clubs," Grusendorf said.

Mooney said he worked with a Texas small-government group called Americans for Prosperity to promote the idea here and that, once he heard it was moving in Texas, First Class Education sent Perry some information about the idea. He said that the group talked to Perry's staff but that it was the governor's idea to issue the executive order.

Perry spokesman Robert Black stressed the same point. "We have numerous conversations with numerous different education stakeholders," Black said. Among the issues that superintendents could grapple with when setting the rule is whether to make exceptions for school districts with many low-income students who require spending on federally funded meal programs or for large districts in rural regions that have high transportation costs.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he sees the 65 percent rule as part of an effort to paint other education expenses as wasteful, making it more difficult for schools to build political support for spending increases.

"If you don't want taxes to go up, what do you do?" Coleman said. "You shift the money internally. But you can't shift the money internally and have a system that's whole."; 445-3654

What counts as classroom instruction?

Federal guidelines that Texas will use as a starting point in deciding what qualifies as classroom instruction.


* Salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides

* Textbooks

* Computers

* Supplies


* Transportation

* Curriculum development

* Administration

* Salaries for nurses, counselors, librarians

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent catch, Angela. I'll be likning to this once my site comes back on-line.