Politics & Policy

Dollars & Sense

Cheap, easy, priceless school reform.

Here are two cold-hearted facts:

First, if children in Asia receive a better education than your children, they will surpass yours in next generation’s global competition.

Second, they will deserve to do so.

Of all society’s institutions from which we should demand excellence, schools top the list. Yet, we tolerate their consistent failure to convert huge financial inputs into adequate education outcomes.

Stories are all too common about students sharing out-of-date textbooks, teachers paying for basic supplies with their own money, and classrooms lacking computers. Meanwhile many administrators take home six-figure salaries with monthly car allowances that have local BMW dealerships keeping their phone numbers on speed-dial.

The call continuously goes out for more money. But when taxpayers respond generously, where does that money go? Too often, not to America’s classrooms, where it’s needed most.

A business technique called “best practices” counsels studying one’s competitors to identify current benchmarks. In that spirit, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the national average for “classroom spending” is 61.5 cents of every dollar of operational budgets (defined to include teachers, textbooks, classroom supplies and activities including athletics, music, the arts, and special-needs instruction).

To date, only four states spend 65 cents or more of their budgets in classrooms (Maine, New York, Tennessee, and Utah).

This “best practice” observation is the inspiration behind a national grassroots movement that has the potential to remake the K-12 education system as we know it. First Class Education seeks to have each school district in America direct at least 65 cents of every dollar away from centralized administrators and into classrooms for more and better-paid teachers, newer textbooks and computers, and to foster an environment that inspires learning.

Many wonder what difference could be made by redirecting 3.5 pennies of every dollar of school budgets into classrooms. Here’s the answer: According to the June 2004 report by the NCES, if all 50 states and Washington, D.C. allocated 65 cents of school spending to classrooms, an additional $14 billion would be available–enough to provide a new laptop computer to every student in America or hire 300,000 more teachers. All without a tax increase.

Arizona’s Republican legislative leaders are supporting a ballot referendum for the 65-cent requirement and Minnesota’s Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty is calling for its immediate passage as part of any final education funding this year. An additional five states will soon be announcing ballot initiatives–one a week for the next five weeks–as this turns into a prairie fire across America.

How will these initiatives work? Each school board would be empowered to determine how to allocate the additional classroom funds. They could choose to raise teacher pay, reduce class sizes, or add additional instructional opportunities. Districts below 65 cents will need to increase by two pennies a year until the goal is reached. A waiver provision is also allowed if districts have legitimate reasons for not reaching the classroom goal.

A central belief behind this movement is that those responsible for the financial control of our schools don’t have their priorities in order. This is the only way to explain the undeniable reality that while government spending on schools continuously increases, students continue to be given inadequate supplies in crowded classrooms taught by underpaid teachers.

That’s why the “65 percent Solution” is a critical component of school reform. It will redirect billions in (tax free) school funding away from administrators, bureaucrats, and paperwork, and invest instead in the classroom education of America’s young people.

This initiative is the fastest way to infuse teachers with a new sense of purpose and the resources to do their jobs. After all, every time you find a great school you find a great story. They are the stories of empowered parents, enthusiastic instructors focused on fundamentals, principals demanding excellence, and school boards demanding accountability.

There’s an education renaissance waiting to happen, and it will occur when more of the resources we send schools follow students directly into classrooms.

If we fail at this, our young people will grow up and face their global competitors unarmed, unprepared, and, I fear, unsuccessfully.

Patrick M. Byrne is the founder and CEO of Overstock.com and First Class Education’s national advisory chairman.

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