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Published in Print: March 8, 2006, as Ga. Passes ‘65 Percent’ Bill on Classroom Spending

Ga. Passes ‘65 Percent’ Bill on Classroom Spending

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Georgia is poised to become the first state to enact a law requiring districts to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on classroom expenses.

The legislature approved such a bill last month. It now awaits the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue, who proposed the measure.

“Students perform best when at least 65 percent of education dollars are spent in the classroom, where learning occurs,” Gov. Perdue, a Republican, said in a statement after the legislature formally adopted the bill last month. “Making classroom spending a priority and providing our hardworking teachers with more classroom resources will give our students the best opportunity to reach their fullest potential.”

Although the so-called “65 percent solution” has been gaining political traction in several states, no other legislature has passed a law that would require school districts to meet that target for classroom spending and demand penalties for those who don’t.

Texas adopted the 65 percent rule last year through an executive order by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, after the measure failed to pass in a broader school finance bill. The Kansas legislature last year set a goal of spending 65 percent on classrooms as part of a school finance bill that was signed into law.

Also last year, the Louisiana legislature passed a bill ordering the state board of elementary and secondary education to enact the 65 percent rule through regulation. That effort stalled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to Tim Mooney, the political consultant for First Class Education, the group organizing the national campaign to enact such rules. ("Group’s ‘65 Percent Solution’ Gains Traction, GOP Friends," Oct. 12, 2005.)

Mr. Mooney added that advocates of the 65 percent rule have collected enough signatures to put an initiative favoring it on the statewide ballot in Colorado next fall. Similar efforts are under way in Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington state.

Democratic Opposition

Georgia school districts spent about 63 percent of their operating budgets on classroom expenses in the 2002-03 school year, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Georgia bill cleared the legislature without support from Democrats, who cited research from Standard & Poor’s, the New York City-based financial-analysis firm, that found no correlation between states that spend 65 percent of their education money on classroom expenses and those that produce high test scores.

The bill is “more fluff than substance,” said Georgia Sen. Tim Golden, the chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus. “It’s a good sound bite, but it doesn’t work.”

Some districts would have to choose between increasing taxes and retaining nurses, librarians, and other personnel whose salaries aren’t considered classroom expenses, Mr. Golden said.

“This is just one more mandate that probably will create the need for additional local taxes,” he said.

The Georgia bill does include language that could allow some districts to skirt the 65 percent rule.

Under the legislation, the state board of education could grant waivers to districts with high scores on state criterion-referenced tests, the SAT, and the state’s high school exams. The bill would provide an exception for emergencies such as natural disasters and dramatic increases in fuel prices.

“We’re not a big fan of that waiver,” Mr. Mooney said. “That’s going to happen from state to state. Overall our goal is … to drive as many dollars as possible toward the classrooms, the teachers, and the kids.”

The Georgia bill would require districts to meet the 65 percent rule beginning in the 2007-08 school year. It defines classroom expenses as anything “directly associated with the interaction between teachers and students.”

Mr. Perdue plans to sign the bill before May, said Heather Hedrick, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Vol. 25, Issue 26, Page 18

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