A fledgling national advocacy group aims to force school districts nationwide to boost spending in the classroom, not by raising taxes but by cutting back on administrative and support services such as busing and counseling.
The goal of the little-known group, First Class Education , is to change the laws in all 50 states by 2008 to require schools to spend at least 65 percent of their operating budgets on classroom expenses, including teachers' salaries, computers and after-school activities.
Since the group's public rollout in March, legislatures in Kansas and Louisiana have passed measures encouraging the idea and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in August ordered state schools to meet the 65 percent threshold. With financial backing from Internet retail tycoon Patrick Byrne, president of Overstock.com, the group is running TV commercials in Minnesota and Arizona and plans to gather signatures in up to 10 states to put the proposal before voters in the 2006 general election.
According to a confidential memo prepared for state lawmakers by First Class Education, the group also hopes to use the issue as a political weapon in the 2006 elections to sow dissension among state education unions and boost the political credibility of Republicans on education issues.
"This is a political ruse to make it sound as if people are committed to public education when in fact they've done nothing to provide an adequate and equal education for our students," said Texas state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D), who helped defeat a legislative proposal to institute the 65 percent rule.
The "65 cent solution" -- so dubbed by conservative columnist George F. Will -- is becoming widely popular among parents and teachers, claims Tim Mooney, a Republican political consultant from Arizona who helped create First Class Education. The idea is an easy sell, he said: Instead of raising taxes to boost spending in the classroom, schools should spend less money on administrators' salaries and other costs that are not tied directly to teaching students.
"Taxpayers want to make sure that before we're asked for more dollars, we know we're getting the most out of our dollars that are currently being spent on education," Mooney said.
Nationally, 61.5 percent of education operational budgets reach the classroom, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Only four states -- Maine, New York, Tennessee, and Utah -- exceed the 65 percent goal, down from seven states three years ago.
Raising the national average to 65 percent would inject nearly $14 billion into the classroom, First Class Education estimates -- enough to buy a desktop computer for every student in America or to hire 325,000 more teachers at $40,000 a year.
What matters is not the amount of money spent per child, but the percentage spent in the classroom, said Byrne, who provided $250,000 to launch First Class Education after being approached by Mooney in December 2004. Byrne, who lives in Utah and has donated money to school voucher groups and helped raise money for cancer prevention, said he plans to give an additional $1 million to First Class Education.
For example, schools in Washington, D.C., which come in last on national standardized tests, spend more than $12,000 per student -- more than any state -- but less than 50 percent goes to the classroom, Byrne said.
"Every organization should be asking itself if it's allocating its resources in the right places, and so far there's no incentive for schools to do that. Their only incentive is for them to ask for more" money, he said.
Critics of the proposal, including school boards, administrators and teacher organizations, call it a political ploy to undermine public support for investing more in education. They said it especially would hurt large rural school districts and poor urban schools that rely more heavily on school buses, counselors, libraries and other services deemed "non-classroom."
"There's no guarantee (this proposal) would put more money in classrooms, especially if you leave it to administrators, who're more likely to cut valuable and necessary support services rather than their own salaries," said Ohio Federation of Teachers President Tom Mooney (no relation to Tim Mooney).
Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who hopes to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2006, supports adopting the 65 percent proposal.
According to a June 2005 NCES report, Ohio spends 57.4 percent of its educational budget in the classroom, ranking the state 47th in the nation. Blackwell said that raising the figure to 65 percent would pump more than $1.2 billion into classrooms without raising taxes.
Blackwell, who also supports a proposed constitutional amendment to strictly limit state spending, said he will use a citizen petition to put the 65 percent proposal on the ballot in 2006 if the state Legislature does not impose it.
First Class Education hopes to get the issue on the 2006 ballot in up to 10 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Oklahoma, and raise at least $10 million to fund the effort, Byrne said.
Stateline.org obtained a First Class Education memo circulated among Republican lawmakers in several states that lists "political benefits" by putting the 65 percent proposal on the ballot. The memo, first published by the Austin American-Statesman last month, says the proposal will "create tremendous tension" within state education unions by pitting administrators against teachers and will divert spending on other political goals of the "education establishment."
It says that backing the 65 percent plan will boost Republicans' credibility on education issues and make it easier to build support for charter schools and school vouchers, which "the voting public -- especially suburban, affluent women voters -- view as an abandonment of public education."
Mooney said that the memo was intended to point out to lawmakers that supporting the 65 percent plan can benefit them politically because 70 percent to 80 percent of voters surveyed support the idea, according polling conducted by First Class Education.
"(Our opponents) will attack this on a political basis, but they won't attack the fact that it's a meaningful goal and it's overwhelmingly popular," Mooney said.
Louisiana and Kansas lawmakers passed resolutions endorsing the 65 percent plan, but did not make it mandatory. A Texas education commission convened Oct. 25 to discuss how school districts should implement the governor's executive order to adopt the 65 percent plan, which was introduced in the Legislature but failed.
The proposal is a one-size-fits-all mandate that fails to take into account the diversity of the state's school districts, said commission member Brock Gregg of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
"Sixty-five cents is an arbitrary standard that's being promoted by the anti-government, anti-tax crowd who wants the public to assume that schools are wasting taxpayers' dollars," he said.