The same week as several Republican state legislators launched their “First Class Education for Colorado” ballot initiative proposal, following a national organization‘s lead in calling upon school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their operating budgets in the classroom, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education makes this declaration under the announcement of its proposed 2005-2006 budget:
DPS Budget Facts
69.1 percent of every dollar spent is allocated to instruction and instructional and pupil support. This includes the learning support provided by counselors, librarians, nurses and others, in addition to books, supplies, computers and other classroom equipment. 23.4 percent of every dollar covers school administration (principals’ offices, maintenance, custodial services and transportation). 7.5 percent of every dollar covers district-wide leadership and support, which includes the central instructional, business, administrative and technology support.
You can learn a lot from statistics… enough to know how manipulated they can be. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) figures say that DPS spent less than 56 percent on instructional expenditures in 2001-2002 and less than 55 percent in 2002-03. That’s quite a significant difference from the 69.1 percent touted by DPS. And the disparity isn’t explained away by the short passage of time.
As the categories DPS uses above are slightly different than those used by the NCES, which figures are used in support of the “65 percent solution,” there is still an obvious point of disagreement on how to define spending in the classroom. From the NCES glossary, something a bit narrower in scope:
Instructional Expenditures (District): Current expenditures for activities directly associated with the interaction between teachers and students. These include teacher salaries and benefits, supplies (e.g., textbooks), and purchased instructional services.
The Colorado version, as explained by Representative Joe Stengel, would also include library-associated costs. But DPS tosses in counselors, nurses, and “others” (which must include food service as part of “learning support,” since it’s not listed in any other category).
The political debate for an initiative that – if it gets enough signatures – will be on the ballot almost 18 months from now is already starting to be framed. The best line of opposition to putting more education dollars into the classroom ultimately will not be a “we can’t do that” excuse model but a semantic “let’s define classroom spending my way” approach. See – aren’t we all for the same thing?
Those promoting the initiative must keep clear, precise, and consistent on how they intend to define classroom spending, or else the debate could define them away.