The Colorado version of First Class Education’s “65 percent plan”, which was unveiled a few weeks ago by House Minority Leader Joe Stengel and some of his Republican colleagues, got some press along the Western Slope with an article by Danie Harrelson in today’s Grand Junction Sentinel.
A few points in the story need to be examined a bit more closely. First:
Colorado, whose school districts on average spend 58 cents of their budget in the classroom, ranks 47th in the nation when it comes to the percentage of state funds that schools invest in instruction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Mesa County Valley School District 51 pumps about 67 percent of its state funding into classroom instruction, District 51 spokesman Jeff Kirtland said. That equates to roughly $76.5 million of a $112.5 million budget spent on instructional programs.
“(Taxpayer) dollars are maximized in the classroom,” Kirtland said.
Unfortunately, the reporter makes an “apples-and-oranges” comparison here. The 58 percent figure for Colorado, drawn from the most recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data, reflects the amount of school districts’ current expenditures (everything spent in a given school year, except for capital construction projects and debt repayment) spent in the classroom. According to these figures, Grand Junction’s Mesa Valley 51 School District is one of the better-performing districts in Colorado, spending 62 percent in the classroom.
The 67 percent referred to by the school district spokesman reflects the amount spent from its general fund – which represents a large chunk of its total budget – but skews the overall picture a bit. (Sound familiar? Look back at Denver school officials’ definitional issues.)
Disappointingly, for whatever reason, Harrelson only referenced the statistic cited by Kirtland. A local education reporter who has good relations with the district spokesman, on whom (s)he reliably depends to do his/her job, may not be inclined to question what (s)he is told, even when the spokesman’s cited statistics may reflect the self-interest of a government entity not eager to be reformed. Harrelson could have pointed out the disagreement in the use of statistical evidence, but perhaps those figures were not available to her. I have contacted her, offering to provide the NCES data.
Dan Robinson, a member of the District 51 School Board of Education, cautions the national push for statewide accountability overlooks the people most in tune with individual schools’ needs and voters’ expectations for those schools.
“Local school boards are going to do what’s best,” he said. “They’re not squandering the money that they do have.”
Additional services outside the classroom are critical to ensure children’s academic success, Robinson said. He pointed to the district’s decision to focus on instructional needs while its infrastructure crumbled, a situation for which voters approved $109 million in loans last November to remedy.
“How do you maintain a safe building … and still support instruction?” he said. “You can’t cram 35 kids in a classroom designed for 20.”
Moving money around isn’t a cure-all, he said, adding that “it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
After Mesa 51’s spokesman suggested the school district is already at 65 percent so there’s no big deal, one of its board members worried aloud that not all school districts can find a way to live up to such a high classroom spending standard. The way this section of the article is written obscures the fact that capital construction costs are excluded from the 65 percent rule, so it’s not as if funds will be taken away from erecting new school buildings. I’ve discussed this before: no need to elaborate more.
Third (and finally):
It’s the student services that would be left to clamor for the remaining 35 cents that alarm the proposal’s critics.
“It doesn’t increase the pie,” Colorado Education Association spokeswoman Deborah Fallin said. “It takes the current pie and splits it up differently.”
…Fallin said the key to spending more money in the classroom lies not in how districts divvy up their funding, but how much funding districts have in the first place.
“It’s not how you split it up,” she said. “We’re not spending enough money.”
Further proof that the teachers’ union is scared of this proposal. Catch Deborah Fallin’s logic – give us more money, but don’t expect us to make classroom spending a priority. First, CEA and the education establishment has not demonstrated enough success for us to listen with a straight face to them ask for more money without any expectations. Second, you’d think an organization with one of its chief purposes being bargaining for better pay for teachers would be delighted in the idea of making classroom spending a priority.
The question still stands (for Ms. Fallin and others): exactly how big “a pie” does the establishment need to rightly do the important work of educating the children of Colorado?
Since no one can tell us how much funding is enough, shouldn’t the taxpaying citizens of Colorado at least be able to share our concerns and suggest how that money ought to be spent?