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State Focus: The 65 Percent disSolution

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A handful of conservatives have embraced a plan that undermines America’s schools and are selling the plan as a silver bullet to the problems faced by those schools.  The plan, dubbed the 65 Percent Solution, is the brainchild of Utah businessman Patrick M. Byrne, president and chairman of Overstock.com, Inc.  It requires school districts to reallocate existing funds so that at least 65 percent of their educational budget is spent on classroom instruction.  The measure has been approved by legislatures in Kansas, Louisiana and Georgia and has been implemented in Texas by an executive order of Governor Rick Perry. Bills are currently pending in 17 other states, and initiatives are expected to be on the ballot in 2006 in Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Florida, Missouri and Ohio. 

However the 65 Percent Solution is far from the silver bullet solution to education that it’s touted as.  There is no evidence that simply reallocating school resources so 65 percent of funds is spent in the classroom has a positive effect on academic performance.  A study by Standard & Poor’s SchoolMatters (PDF) shows that, in nine states where the 65 Percent Solution is currently under consideration, some of the highest performing districts spend less than 65 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction while some of the lowest performing districts already spend 65 percent or more. Putting this logic in context, Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute points out, “If a ‘corporate reformer’ acquired Wal-Mart and decreed that 65 percent of all revenues be spent on floor staff and in-store improvements, Wall Street would greet him with derision. There is nothing innately wrong with such moves — but well-managed firms know that one-size-fits-all management went out with lava lamps and leisure suits.” 

With a system of standards-based education and accountability, local leaders should have the flexibility to allocate funds wherever needed to ensure gains in all students’ academic performance.  The 65 Percent Solution simplistically focuses on financial inputs rather than learning outcomes by limiting local control over how education dollars are spent.  As Hess further iterates, “It’s a troubling commentary that the kind of crude input management left for dead in the 1970s is today being pushed as state-of-the-art school reform. This is one silver bullet that should stay in its chamber.”

In addition to doing nothing to improve academic achievement, the 65 Percent Solution’s narrow definition of classroom instruction actually hurts students and schools.  Classroom instruction as defined in the plan includes teacher salaries, general instruction supplies, instructional aides and activities such as field trips, athletics, music and arts.  It does not include, however, building maintenance, school lunches, transportation, heat, nurses, counselors, libraries and librarians, computer labs, teacher professional development, speech therapists, or school security.  Under the 65 Percent Solution, these important resources have to compete for 35 percent of already scarce funds. 

Most troubling is the claim made by creators of the 65 Percent Solution that no amount of money spent outside of the classroom can boost student learning in school.  This plan clearly ignores the critical role that teachers play in fostering student learning — they are the single most important factor in whether and how much students learn — and therefore disregards the importance of ongoing, high-quality teacher professional development.  Instead of focusing efforts on sound solutions to improve academic achievement, the 65 Percent Solution serves to maintain the current system that is, all too often, ill-preparing the nation’s children for the demands of a global society.

A recent USA Today examination of school nursing underscores the problems the 65 Percent Solution poses to the nation’s students.  In school districts from the District of Columbia to Utah to California, a shortage of school nurses is putting children at risk.  School districts do not have the money to hire enough nurses and the salaries they are able to offer are too low to attract well-trained and experienced nurses.  Often, schools within a district must share a lone nurse, who travels miles to see students at different schools and is not immediately available when a student needs medical assistance.  These nurses are sometimes responsible for thousands of students, even though federal guidelines call for one nurse for every 750 students.  Consequently, students who suffer from serious conditions like diabetes, asthma attacks and attention deficit disorder often rely on teachers and other school staff with no medical experience for assistance.  Five years ago, for example, teachers at a California high school watched a 17-year-old student die of cardiac arrest after collapsing during badminton practice.  The teachers could not identify the student’s symptoms and no nurse was available to provide prompt medical attention.  Under the 65 Percent Solution even less money will be available for adequate school nursing. 

In addition to cuts to school nursing, the 65 Percent Solution would also lead to a decrease in library resources, which are not included in the definition of classroom instruction.  While there is no proof that spending 65 percent of the educational budget in the classroom improves student performance, several studies — including ones on Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Texas, where the 65 Percent Solution will either be on the ballot in 2006 or has recently been implemented—have shown that funding library services does.  A 2005 study (PDF) of the impact of library services on academic achievement in Illinois indicates that students have higher reading, writing and ACT scores when their school libraries are well-funded and staffed more fully, their school libraries carry larger collections, educational technology is available in school libraries, and there is more collaboration between teachers and librarians.  Diverting money away from library services in order to fund classroom activities would be severely detrimental to academic achievement, particularly among low-income children, many of whom are minority and already attend schools with limited resources.  The Department of Education reported in 1996 that approximately 60 percent of low-income children live in homes without a single children’s book. 

Teacher professional development, library and school nursing programs are not the only ones that suffer under the 65 Percent Solution.  Resources for school safety, transportation, building maintenance, and school lunches are also among the many programs that would have to be eliminated or significantly reduced because the 35 percent of school budgets allotted to “outside the classroom expenses” would not be sufficient to adequately fund all of them.  Teachers, who proponents of the 65 Percent Solution claim would benefit most from the reallocation of school funds, have joined the National PTA, the American Association of School Librarians, the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators in opposition to the measure. 

Teachers in states where the 65 Percent Solution has been implemented, is close to being implemented, or will be on the ballot in 2006 have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the plan.  For example, the Washington Education Association calls the 65 Percent Solution “the next assault on public school funding.” 

The Missouri chapter of the National Education Association calls the 65 Percent Solution “65 percent deception.”  Among the many of concerns of the MNEA is the program’s one-size-fits-all nature that mandates that all school districts spend the same percentage of their budgets on classroom instruction with no regard for differences in size and needs in each district.

The Texas State Teachers Association says that the 65 Percent Solution incorrectly assumes that the problem with America’s public schools is misallocation rather than a lack of funds and points out that “65 percent of inadequate is still inadequate.” 

The Florida Education Association calls the 65 Percent Solution “deceptive and misguided.” 

Teachers understand that they are most effective in the classroom when they can count on the support of librarians, nurses, custodians and others who contribute to the overall quality of education.

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