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Right Side? Wrong Reasons

By Benjamin DeGrow

Requiring school districts to spend more money in the classroom seems to offer a powerful solution to the problems of public education. But a closer look shows the approach won’t be as effective as some would hope.

Colorado voters this year are faced with dueling proposals to dictate local school spending: Amendment 39 and Referendum J. In the end, neither can be expected to make much of an impact. Yet the one that has the slightest potential to make a real effect has drawn fire from unions and school officials.

The national advocacy group First Class Education gathered more than 100,000 Coloradans’ signatures to put Amendment 39 on the ballot. Only 12 of the state’s 178 school districts already meet the proposal’s mandate that school districts spend 65 percent of their operating budgets on “classroom instruction”–including teachers and classroom aides, textbooks, instructional supplies, tutoring, libraries, field trips, athletics, and purchased instructional services.

If enforced, the measure would shift an estimated $278 million of current education spending into these areas. Yet little could stop most school districts from merely hiring another bureaucrat to reconfigure the chart of accounts or rename job titles to meet the mandate.

A reader who browses through the Colorado Department of Education’s thick chart of accounts can get an idea of how easily school budgets can be manipulated.

Of course, it is possible that some school boards actually would eliminate some administrative staff positions (many of which were created to comply with federal regulations) in order to hire more teachers. They also might offer salary bonuses to their existing faculty or buy more textbooks and classroom computers. Maybe they would cut non-instructional costs through competitive contracting for services like maintenance or trash removal.

Regardless of what a school board might do in response, no connection has been found between the percentage spent on “classroom instruction” and the resulting student achievement. While the Bell Policy Center and advocacy groups like Great Education Colorado rightly tout this argument, they also ignore the more thoroughly established body of research that shows no link between increased education spending and better academic outcomes.

Amendment 39’s advocates believe it has great potential to empower parents with information and to improve schools. Others fear the proposal may unintentionally hamper local school districts’ ability to offer parents innovative choices.

Even so, the ado surrounding Amendment 39 is mostly about nothing and a distraction from more important debates surrounding education reform. Remarkably, Referendum J is even less substantial.

A copycat created by the state legislature and heralded by the teachers union, Referendum J expands Amendment 39’s 65 percent requirement to include money spent on principals, counselors, nurses, food service, transportation, and teacher training programs. Only central administration and building maintenance are left out of its designated “services that directly affect student achievement.”

Not surprisingly, only three Colorado school districts actually spend more than 35 percent of their operating budgets on administration and maintenance. The fact that they miss the proposal’s very low bar by a total deficit of about $1 million shows the legislature was not trying to address a serious problem.

The Colorado Education Association touts Referendum J as a viable alternative to Amendment 39 because it would require school districts to institute standardized budget reporting. Without an effective auditing tool, though, this provision too is mere window-dressing.

In 2000, Colorado voters narrowly changed the state constitution by approving Amendment 23, an ongoing guaranteed increase of funds for school leaders to spend. This year voters weigh calls to sketch boundaries around how the growing cash flow is spent. Both approaches are flawed and substantially overrated, but only Amendment 39 has provoked the wrath of the interest groups defending education’s status quo.

Six years ago school officials embraced Amendment 23’s dramatic revenue boost, while union leaders cheered its promise to shrink class sizes and to grow its pool of potential dues-paying members. Neither expressed concerns about putting the spending mandate in the constitution.

Yet this year the education establishment has banded together to oppose Amendment 39’s attempt to give the taxpaying customers tighter strings on expanding school budgets. If officials are on the right side of the “65 percent” debate, it’s for the wrong reasons.

First Class Education is definitely right about one thing: Colorado’s parents and taxpayers deserve a transparent public school system that provides real accountability. But Amendment 39 and Referendum J are far more likely to be symbols, rather than solutions.