An effort to require school districts to funnel 65 percent of their budgets directly into classrooms is gaining traction in several states.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas signed an executive order in August mandating that school districts implement the 65 Percent Solution, as the idea is called by the nonprofit group organizing the effort. It also has been endorsed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the leaders of both chambers of Arizona’s legislature, and other top state officials.
But while the group pushing the idea is led by a businessman with a bipartisan background, all of those politicians are Republicans. And the group spearheading the effort is targeting states where Democratic governors are expected to face tough re-election fights.
As a result, discussions about the merits of the idea may be overshadowed by questions about the proponents’ motives—particularly as an internal document suggests the drive is indeed intended to bolster Republicans.
“What we’ve found is a cynical ploy that is related to politics, not to education policy,” said Kay Coles, a state-policy expert for the National Education Association. The 2.7 million-member teacher union opposes the group’s 65 percent goal.
The national consultant spearheading the effort said last week that the organizing group, First Class Education, isn’t aligned with a political party but is committed to a “simple and intuitive” idea that is politically popular.
“As an organization, we’re only concerned with getting our issue passed,” said Timothy F. Mooney, the Arizona-based Republican consultant working with First Class Education. “There will be an advantage to be with us and a disadvantage to be against us.”
The group’s 65 Percent Solution is one of several recent efforts to demand that schools spend their money in ways that the proponents see as wiser and more efficient, such as by shifting funds from administration to instruction. (“Schools Feel Pressure of Efforts to Increase Fiscal Accountability,” June 8, 2005.)
On the First Class Education Web site, the group describes itself as a grassroots effort and recruits volunteers for the cause. It lists an address in Washington as its headquarters, but operates mostly through state-based consultants, Mr. Mooney says.
An internal document obtained by Education Week suggests that the group has a political agenda beyond its policy goals.
Of the four states initially targeted for ballot measures on the 65 Percent Solution next year, three—Arizona, Oklahoma, and Michigan—have Democratic governors facing re-election. The fourth, Colorado, will have an open governorship because the Republican incumbent, Bill Owens, is prohibited from seeking re-election.
By backing the 65 Percent Solution on the ballot, “Republicans will have a viable answer to ‘in the classroom improvement of education’ without the need to call for a tax increase,” the four-page document says.
It also says that the “education establishment” will oppose the idea, in turn diverting campaign funds and volunteers from establishment-endorsed candidates.
“Every day and every dollar the education establishment uses to defeat this proposal is a day and a dollar they cannot spend on other political activities,” the document, printed on First Class Education letterhead, says.
Mr. Mooney said that he would not verify the authenticity of the document, but during an interview last week, he used many of the same arguments spelled out in the document, and sometimes exactly the same phrases.
Other signs also suggest that First Class Education is trying to bolster Republicans and undermine Democrats by splitting their constituencies in the education world. For example:
• Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is running to be the Republican nominee for governor in next year’s election, announced last month that he would lead a petition drive to get a measure on the state’s ballot in support of the 65 Percent Solution.
• In television ads posted on the group’s Web site, a narrator says that “Republican leaders have a plan” in Arizona and Minnesota to increase classroom spending, “all with no tax increase.” The Arizona ad features Speaker of the House Jim Weiers and the president of the Senate, Ken Bennett, both Republicans. While Gov. Pawlenty isn’t in the Minnesota ad, his name appears in a newspaper headline that flashes across the screen.
• Several of First Class Education’s state-based consultants are prominent Republicans. Arizona-based consultant Randall L. Pullen is one of that state’s members of the Republican National Committee, and Dan Kyle, the chairman of the Louisiana effort, is a deputy chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party.
Mr. Mooney said last week that he would like the effort to be bipartisan, but that he has won more support from Republicans than Democrats so far.
In Arizona, one of the states targeted for a ballot initiative, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano has set a goal for districts to spend 62 percent of their operating costs on classroom expenses.
First Class Education was launched last spring as a project of Patrick J. Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, an online merchandiser of consumer goods.
Earlier this year, Mr. Byrne, who did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, described himself as a “zig-zag moderate” in a Web-log entry on his company’s Web site.
His Web posting also included a list of his recent campaign contributions, which included donations to Democratic and Republican candidates. Last year, he gave $250 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Vietnam War veterans that attacked Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts over the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee’s war record and anti-war activities.
On First Class Education’s Web site, an image of a garbage can appears below the words “What a Waste.” After clicking on the image, the user sees a list of entries that include stories about a superintendent’s retirement benefits, allegedly misspent federal funds, and other examples of what is deemed wasteful education spending.
The group wants legislation and state ballot initiatives that would require districts to spend 65 percent of their budgets in classrooms, using the definition of classroom costs that the National Center for Education Statistics uses to track school finances.
The NCES says classroom expenses include salaries of teachers and classroom aides, the costs of extracurricular activities such as athletics and music programs, and special education services provided by private schools. Under its definition, transportation, libraries, food services, and professional development are among the costs that are considered administrative expenses.
According to the NCES, schools spent about 61.3 percent of their operating budgets on classroom resources in the 2002-03 school year.
Many educators oppose the 65 Percent Solution because, they say, it would force schools to cut employees, such as school nurses, who play important roles even if they aren’t part of academic programs.
Supporters of the idea “fail to realize that these and other expenditures are very important for education,” said Rob D’Amico, a spokesman for the Texas Federation of Teachers.
Following up Texas Gov. Perry’s order requiring the state’s districts to spend 65 percent of their budgets on instructional expenses, the Texas Education Agency will define what constitutes such expenses.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Group’s ‘65 Percent Solution’ Gains Traction, GOP Friends