65-percent solution gains traction

 
 
Published: 10/14/2007 5:59 AM

Educators love trends.

Teachers debate the hot new method while superintendents strive to develop the next national model.

The education movement now gripping legislators and tax reformers -- though not most educators -- would mandate that 65 percent of school spending reach the classroom.

The push is led by the Washington-based advocacy group First Class Education.

Three states -- Texas, Georgia and Kansas -- have enacted versions of the plan. At least 18 states, including Illinois, at some point considered similar legislation.

The National Education Association condemns the 65-percent solution as a "one-size-fits-all budget yoke."

Still, the national teachers union acknowledges, "the problem is … that it sounds like such a good idea."

The 65-percent solution focuses on instructional spending as a percentage of "operating" expenditures.

Operating expenditures generally describe the day-to-day costs of running a district, and exclude payments related to legal fees, construction, bonds and, here, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Distinguishing between operating and non-operating expenditures eliminates some of the variables districts can't control.

But the operating designation also can obscure school finances by creating the illusion that only operating money is "real" money, and the rest shouldn't be taken into account when evaluating a district's ledgers.

Still, the traction that the 65-percent solution has gained suggests a widespread concern about how much money is spent in the classroom.

And Illinois considers the issue crucial enough to include on state report cards.

In 2005-06, the state as a whole put 59 percent of its operating expenditures toward instruction.

Only 98 of the state's 874 districts surpassed the 65 percent threshold.

If Illinois did adopt the 65-percent solution, an additional $1.1 billion would have had to flow into the classroom in 2005-06.

Or, schools could reach the mark by restraint. The state would have spent 65 percent on instruction in 2005-06 if districts had cut operating expenses by $1.7 billion and kept instructional expenditures steady.