Controversy is rising over a proposed Florida State Constitutional Amendment 9 that says every School District must spend at least 65% of its money on classroom instruction.
Already, the Orlando Sentinel came out with an article today that used dubious math (in my opinion as a former auditor) to say most schools already spent 65% of their funds on classroom training.
Below is both an AP article, and then the Orlando Sentinel article. The problem is that the method for calculating the 65% is up in the air, and subject to incorrect assumptions.
It is clear in my reading that the Sentinel is calculating percentages based upon only part of the School budget - they don't seem to include costs for school building or debt interest payment, and maybe left out other cost as part the the "total" used as the base in the percentage calculation. I wrote the reporter, Vicki McClure, to ask for more details.
However, according to the AP article,
To figure this correctly, you have to go to the law, and see how it defines the components to get to the 65% target number. The Sentinel made no mention that they did so. But, most of the Sentinel's article seemed aimed at attacking the other component of the Amendment, which was to increase the ability of private school students to obtain vouchers for state funds to pay their schooling costs. It clearly seemed to me to be against the Vouchers, which many consider an important method to provide competitiveness in the education system in Florida. By letting parents choose which school their children attended, and allowing publicly funded vouchers to be used for private schools, competition would increase the focus on results in all schools.
Until I see a complete analysis, I won't believe any of these calculation results. Anyway, the entire argument may be moot, because the AP article says that the legislature gets to define "classroom" spending, thus the math method used to meet the 65% rule. That means if the Amendment passes, it could be watered down when the unions lobby to make the target easy to meet.
Article from AP that has more details:
In Florida, '65 percent solution' for schools facing test
by The Associated Press
Friday August 01, 2008, 5:46 AM
Tallahassee -- Conservatives and libertarians nationwide tout the "65 percent solution," an enticing, simple -- and some say deceptive -- school budgeting concept, as a way to increase classroom spending without raising taxes.
The idea is to require schools to spend 65 percent of their budgets on classroom expenses as opposed to administrative costs. It's been pushed for three years but has sputtered nationally, with only Georgia and Texas adopting it.
Undeterred, backers have focused on Florida, where the measure has earned a place on the November ballot but is being challenged. Approval in Florida, supporters believe, could spur more states to do the same.
"The administrators are fighting this tooth and nail," said Tim Mooney, a spokesman for First Class Education, an organization formed in Washington to promote the idea.
The plan has drawn opposition from teachers, school boards and the national PTA. Financial research and rating firm Standard & Poor's released a study in 2005 that found no relationship between student achievement and the percentage of a school's budget spent in the classroom.
Whatever momentum the idea had faded quickly because of the S&P study and a growing national focus on student achievement measured by standardized tests, said Mike Griffith, with the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States.
There's also disagreement over how classroom spending should be defined.
Federal statistics show school districts nationally spend an average of 66 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction and related expenses and about 11 percent on purely administrative costs. They also spend 5 percent on support services such as libraries, school nurses and guidance counselors and 18 percent on transportation, food services, maintenance and other operational costs.
But First Class Education counts teacher training, transportation, food services, counselors, nurses and librarians as administrative costs. Under the group's definition, classroom spending includes athletics and other extracurriculars, plus teacher salaries and supplies.
Sixty-five percent was set as the goal because a quarter of the nation's school districts could meet it when the campaign was launched, Mooney said.
But only four states -- New York, Maine, Tennessee and Utah -- then met the standard statewide.
Texas and Georgia closely follow the group's criteria. Florida's proposal would leave the definition of classroom spending up to the Legislature.
Critics note that rural districts typically have higher busing costs while poor ones spend more on food. Many school officials say those functions are vital but not considered classroom expenses under the 65 percent solution.
Jackie Lain, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, said his state's districts are struggling to meet the requirement without raising taxes as fuel and food costs rise.
"You can't educate kids if they are not there," Lain said. "You can't educate hungry children."
Georgia and Texas officials say their programs are too new to assess.
Lawmakers in at least a dozen states have rejected the concept, including Utah, the home state of Internet retail entrepreneur Patrick Byrne, who came up with the idea and founded First Class Education.
Voters in Colorado defeated a 65 percent proposal in 2006, the same year sponsors abandoned petition drives in Arizona, Oregon and Washington state. The Oklahoma Supreme Court threw a 65 percent proposal off the ballot last year.
Kansas has embraced the concept as a goal, not a requirement. The state's deputy education commissioner, Dale Dennis, said it has been effective in getting school boards to discuss ways to meet the target without tying their hands.
In response to the push, Louisiana requires school systems to spend at least 70 percent of their budgets at the school building level -- including the salary of the principal and other administrators -- and no more than 30 percent on the central office.
Polls show a majority of Florida voters oppose vouchers but like the 65 percent solution by an even bigger margin.
Article from Orlando Sentinel (that seems to use incorrect math to show current spending %)
Proposal ties school vouchers to more popular issue
Vicki McClure | Sentinel Staff Writer
August 4, 2008
A proposed state constitutional amendment offers what sounds like a simple and painless remedy for improving public education in Florida -- require every school district to spend at least 65 percent of its money on classroom instruction.
But nearly every school district already does that. The real impact of Amendment 9, which a Leon County circuit court judge will consider knocking off the fall ballot today, could be a second mandate that public-school advocates say could have a far greater impact on district budgets -- legalized taxpayer support for private-school tuition.
About 300,000 students in Florida attend private schools in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the state Education Department. If all became eligible for tuition reimbursement -- or vouchers -- districts could lose as much as $2.3 billion in state and local revenue, said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
"You could instantly have a huge run on public-education dollars," he said.
Patricia Levesque, executive director of Foundation for Florida's Future, which supports vouchers, called the concerns "doomsday scenarios." She said that if voters approved Amendment 9, legislators would determine what school-choice programs would be eligible for tax funding.
"That is something Wayne made up in his head," said Levesque, who was deputy chief of staff for education under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
All but seven of Florida's 67 school districts already spend at least 65 percent on teachers, counselors, librarians and other instruction-related costs, according to an Orlando Sentinel analysis of expenditures for the 2006-07 school year. Five missed by a single percentage point.
The two districts that spent far less were Charlotte County, which was devastated by Hurricane Charley and is having to spend about a third of its operating costs on facility needs; and Glades County.
All districts in Central Florida exceeded the target.
1 issue popular, the other not
The 65 percent requirement appears popular with voters. Polls conducted in April and June by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut found that six of 10 registered voters supported it.
Vouchers, however, are not popular: More than half of those polled said they opposed allowing parents to use tax money for their child's tuition at private or religious schools.
Critics of Amendment 9 charged that the two issues were paired so that voters would be fooled into approving vouchers.
"This is an effort to amend the constitution by ambush," said Ron Meyer, an attorney for the Florida Education Association, which represent teachers. "This is not the proper way to deal with our founding document."
The FEA and other opponents sued to remove the amendment from the ballot, contending in part that the title and summary language are misleading. Amendment 9 does not use the term "vouchers," though it states the measure "reverses legal precedent prohibiting public funding of private school alternatives."
Advocates said the two issues were paired because they concerned the same goal.
"We thought they were both policy issues that had to do with education spending," said Greg Turbeville, a lobbyist and former policy director for Bush who sat on the state commission that put the amendment on the ballot.
Vouchers a repeated target
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's first voucher program, called Opportunity Scholarships. The court said the vouchers violated the constitutional requirement to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." The program, enacted by Bush shortly after he became governor, paid for children to leave failing public schools and attend private ones.
Advocates successfully raised the issue this spring with the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, an appointed body that meets about once every 20 years to examine the state budgetary process and propose constitutional changes to voters.
Martha Barnett, a lobbyist and attorney who sat on the commission, said she opposed vouchers because she felt voters already had "spoken loud and clearly about the value of free public education in the state."
She was a member of the Constitution Revision Commission a decade ago that put an amendment on the ballot adding the very language the court cited in knocking down vouchers.
"The words we used were carefully considered and selected to create a system that the legislators knew, if adopted by the people, that it [free public schools] was the highest duty," Barnett said. "This [Amendment 9] could potentially damage our public-education system in dramatic ways. We barely have enough money for it now."
Levesque, who sat on the tax commission with Barnett, said that, given the current budget climate, she doubts legislators would want to take on all the private school kids at the expense of about 2.6 million who attend public schools.
"All I want is for our education system to be adaptable to each child," she said. "This ensures the Legislature can make new programs that meet every child's need."
Vicki McClure can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5540.