'65 percent solution' could erode class size restrictions
The plan would force districts to spend 65 percent of their budgets on classroom expenses - and ease the class-size caps voters approved four years ago.
By RON MATUS
Published December 28, 2005
State lawmakers who want to water down the 2002 class-size amendment have latched on to a national movement that aims to pump more money into classrooms through a rigid funding formula.
Dubbed the "65 percent solution," the proposed constitutional amendment - which is backed by Gov. Jeb Bush and powerful lawmakers - would force school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their operating budgets on classroom expenses such as teachers, computers and student supplies.
None of Florida's 67 school districts meet that standard.
In return, the amendment would ease the stringent and multibillion-dollar class-size caps that voters approved four years ago.
"This is the best way to put over a billion more dollars (a year) into classrooms," said Rep. Adam Hasner, a Palm Beach County Republican who is spearheading the effort.
The 65 percent idea comes with baggage: The movement's national chairman is a maverick businessman who has been accused of spreading Wall Street conspiracy theories while his company performs below expections. And a recent analysis by Standard & Poor's, the credit rating company, found the 65 percent idea isn't based on hard evidence linking spending levels to student performance.
Yet in Florida, Republican leaders are lining up to embrace it.
Incoming Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, is chief sponsor of a recently filed bill that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot linking class size and the 65 percent plan. The proposal needs a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate to pass next spring. But it already has 20 co-sponsors, including several senators who last year rejected efforts to undo the class-size amendment.
Bush has indicated his support for the idea. State Board of Education chairman Phil Handy said he likes it, too.
"It's a way to get more money in the classroom, which is what we always wanted to do," he said. "It should be a win-win for everybody."
Some critics say they see a high-stakes gimmick - an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all formula that could force districts to cut everything from librarians and guidance counselors to janitors and bus drivers.
Bush, Handy and Republican legislative leaders have made no secret of their dislike for the class-size amendment, which they say will channel billions of dollars away from other pressing education needs, such as attracting quality teachers. So far, efforts to repeal or limit the amendment's directives have failed.
The 65 percent idea is another repeal attempt in disguise, said Damien Filer, who served as spokesman for the effort to get the class-size amendment passed.
"They can't win simply by going back to the voters" with a direct call for repeal, Filer said. "They've got to confuse and muddy the issue."
Other observers see one half-baked idea vying to replace another.
"I don't want to say it's sophomoric, but it's an oversimplification," Pinellas County school superintendent Clayton Wilcox said of the 65 percent idea.
Florida spends 58.8 percent of its education operating budget in the classroom, ranking it 43rd in the nation, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Moving to 65 percent would mean another $1-billion going to classrooms each year.
In the west-central Florida, the numbers range from 55.5 percent in Pasco County to 59.3 percent in Hillsborough County. Pinellas spends 58.3 percent.
Those figures are based on a federal definition of "in the classroom" expenses - a definition that is likely to be at issue when the Legislature meets in the spring.
Wilcox said by his estimation, Pinellas spends more than 80 percent of its operating budget in the classroom.
Some special education students, for example, might need psychological services or social workers to help them succeed, Wilcox said. "All those things count," he said. But under the federal definition, those workers are not considered classroom expenses.
Wilcox said there are often good reasons why some districts spend more on out-of-classroom expenses than others. Pinellas, for example, is under a court-ordered desegregation plan that requires a complicated and expensive bus system.
"You have to be able to tease those details out," Wilcox said.
Critics ask a related question: Why is 65 percent the magic number?
Supporters say there is a strong correlation between states that spend the most money in the classroom and states with the highest test scores in math and reading. And those states average close to 65 percent, said Tim Mooney, an Arizona-based political consultant who serves as spokesman for First Class Education, a group leading the 65 percent effort.
Good business practices dictate that you "look at what the top 10 percent do and follow what they do," he said.
Critics call that analysis simplistic.
Utah, for example, is among the leaders in classroom spending and test scores. But it has few minority students, who often struggle the most, and has been criticized by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings for failing to make headway in closing the achievement gap for the minority students it does have.
In a report last month, the education research arm of Standard & Poor's concluded that in nine states it reviewed there was "no significant relationship between instructional spending at 65 percent or any other level and student performance."
"We really would feel a lot more comfortable if there was a sound research basis to this," said John Wiegman, associate executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
Yet the idea continues to stake new ground.
First Class Education is aiming to get all 50 states to pass laws requiring the 65 percent solution by 2008. So far, at least 10 states are considering it. In Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry mandated it by executive order. In Kansas, the Legislature passed a bill making it a public policy goal.
In Florida, the movement's fate is firmly hitched to class size.
The proposed amendment would make 65 percent the legal standard and adjust the class-size amendment. Compliance on class sizes would be determined by a district-wide average, which is much easier - and much cheaper - for districts to meet than the classroom caps that would be required several years from now.
"I think they're trying to come up with a solution that works," said Pasco County school superintendent Heather Fiorentino.
Fiorentino, a former teacher and Republican state representative, said she leans in favor of the proposed amendment, despite concerns about how classroom spending will be defined. The class-size amendment is putting huge strains on high-growth counties such as Pasco, and the 65 percent amendment would offer relief, she said.
"We went a little too far with class size," she said.
Aside from class size, the 65 percent movement is raising other questions.
An August story in the Austin American-Statesman suggested the group pushing the 65 percent solution has a bigger agenda. A First Class Education memo obtained by the Texas newspaper said pushing the 65 percent plan as a ballot measure will yield political benefits for Republicans by pitting teachers against administrators, distracting the "education establishment" from other issues and building support for private school vouchers and charter schools.
The movement's public face, Patrick Byrne, is also generating unflattering headlines, though for unrelated business matters.
In August, Byrne, president of online retailer Overstock.com, said in a widely reported conference call that a plot "to destroy our stock" was being overseen by an unnamed "Sith Lord," a reference to a shadowy figure from the Star Wars movies. In November, Fortune magazine wrote that Byrne "seems like someone who sees shadows on the wall that are much bigger than the characters who cast them."
Hasner, the state representative who is Florida chairman for First Class Education, said he has never met Byrne. But he said he didn't think Byrne's personal or corporate woes would affect the 65 percent movement.
"This issue's bigger than him now," Hasner said.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org