GOP Governor Hopefuls Chase “65 Percent Solution”

Both Marc Holtzman [no link yet available on his Web site] and Bob Beauprez are touting their support of the popular “65 percent solution” education initiative. A ceremony was held at the State Capitol today to celebrate the submission of the petition signatures that officially put the measure on Colorado’s November ballot.

In our separate RMA interviews with the two candidates several months ago, I came away with the convincing impression that Holtzman had a much stronger grasp of the issue than his rival did. I am more confident he could hold up the arguments in a debate with a formidable opponent who may be in the pockets of the education interest groups.

Why were the two Republican candidates practically shouldering one another out of the way to be the first in line to support the First Class Education “65 percent solution”? You will find one excellent answer here.

Yet on the same day, both of Denver’s major dailies poured cold water on the First Class Education proposal. The Rocky Mountain News said “No” to the plan, making some sound skeptical arguments about the measure, especially concerned about inserting its provisions in the State Constitution.

However, the Denver Post fell off the cliff of confusion, calling the plan “100 percent wrong.” The Post‘s four points in opposition?

1. It would hurt rural school districts that spend more on transportation costs.

Maybe in a few cases, yes, do districts spend such a significant portion of their operating budgets on transportation that they just couldn’t find a way to comply. But that’s what the waivers in the plan are for.

2. It doesn’t include counselors as a “classroom” expense, and if we’ve learned anything from the Colorado Paradox – the fact we have an educated populace yet do a poor job of sending our own on to college – it’s that there’s a real need for qualified counselors. Not just those counselors who set students on the right academic path toward college, but those who steer our young people back onto the right path socially.

This is probably the best point of the four. But no evidence is given for their claim. Do districts that already spend 65 percent in the classroom have fewer counselors? Is it impossible for districts to spend 65 percent in the classroom without reducing counseling staff or funding? The data simply aren’t there to say.

3. It’s foolish to expect small rural school districts to budget money under the same formula used by large urban districts that have different challenges and expenses. One size fits all? That’s unreasonable.

Had the editors taken time to look at the evidence, they would find no correlation between the size or setting of a district and how much is spent in the classroom. Some of the districts already at 65 percent are small, rural districts, and some of the districts lagging around the 50 percent mark are large urban or suburban districts. And vice versa. Most districts could possibly benefit from making the central administration a little leaner and spending a bit more wisely. A few that were unable to comply have the option of filing for waivers under the “65 percent solution.”

4. Colorado has something called local control for schools. If a community decides its schools aren’t spending enough on classroom instruction, it can elect a new school board.

Sounds nice, huh? But it doesn’t work so well when theory meets the practice of real life. 90+% of local school board members are voted in by self-interested teachers unions, who turn out in larger numbers than the general public at off-year elections. “Local control” is a convenient tool used by some within the education establishment to argue against reforms like vouchers, while they have no problem in setting up statewide tenure laws that tie the hands of local education officials.

A good case can be made that the “65 percent solution” limits the flexibility of school boards to make important budgeting decisions, but only to a certain extent. Within the 65 percent the district has the latitude to spend on anything that fits the definition for “in the classroom.” Everything else is still at their discretion.

For the sake of consistency, I would like to see the Post‘s editors argue for the repeal of tenure laws that make it difficult for school districts to fire bad teachers, and union bargaining agreements that set strict work conditions and require school boards to pay all teachers the same regardless of how well they do. These problems do much more to restrict the efforts of the handful of reform-minded board members who reached their positions by bucking the teachers union. Not a lot holds back union-favored board members from pursuing their agenda, unless you want to count the unending claims that they don’t have enough tax money to achieve more mediocrity.

Or you can read the critique of the “65 percent solution” from the Bell Policy Center, a liberal Colorado think tank. Dr. Frank Waterous writes:

Problem No. 1: The Evidence

In terms of any evidence that the 65 Percent Solution actually works, the bond rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which has a School Evaluation Services group, recently analyzed data from nine states that may consider the 65 percent mandate, including Colorado.

The S&P researchers found that “student performance does not noticeably or consistently increase at 65 percent, or any other percentage spent on instruction.”

Their analysis also determined that some of the highest-performing districts spend less than 65 percent, while some of the lowest-performing districts spend more than 65 percent, on instruction.

The S&P analysis concluded “there is presently a lack of empirical evidence for mandating a uniform percentage spending threshold across all districts to raise student achievement.” In fact, they said there might be legitimate reasons to vary the percentage from one district to another.

Will the Bell admit that much more evidence exists to show no connection between overall per-pupil spending and student achievement? Or that states that spend a higher % in the classroom have a higher correlation with high test scores than states that just spend more money per student? Sure, there’s a lack of evidence to show that the 65 percent plan would really work. But that never stops educrats and their elected official friends from asking for more tax increases to fund higher and higher per-pupil spending. Why not give First Class Education a try?

Beauprez and Holtzman both have it on their agenda. The Republican Party surely will be waving the “65 percent solution” banner during the fall campaign, and the Democrats supported by the interest groups that oppose it will be in a bind. Let’s have an honest discussion about education policy. Bring it on.

For more information on the 65 percent plan, here are some related posts:
Stengel Leads Colorado Toward “First Class Education”
No Surprises Here: A “Can’t-Do” Reaction to First Class Education
Could You Define That, Please?
“65 Percent Plan” Discussion Moves West

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