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One Man's Way to Better Schools

By George F. Will
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page B07

PHOENIX -- Patrick Byrne, a 42-year-old bear of a man who bristles with ideas that have made him rich and restless, has an idea that can provide a new desktop computer for every student in America without costing taxpayers a new nickel. Or it could provide 300,000 new $40,000-a-year teachers without any increase in taxes. His idea -- call it the 65 Percent Solution -- is politically delicious because it unites parents, taxpayers and teachers while, he hopes, sowing dissension in the ranks of the teachers unions, which he considers the principal institutional impediment to improving primary and secondary education.

The idea, which will face its first referendum in Arizona, is to require that 65 percent of every school district's education operational budget be spent on classroom instruction. On, that is, teachers and pupils, not bureaucracy.

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Nationally, 61.5 percent of education operational budgets reach the classrooms. Why make a fuss about 3.5 percent? Because it amounts to $13 billion. Only four states (Utah, Tennessee, New York, Maine) spend at least 65 percent of their budgets in classrooms. Fifteen states spend less than 60 percent. The worst jurisdiction -- Washington, D.C., of course -- spends less than 50 percent.

Under the 65 percent rule, Arizona, which spends 56.8 percent in classrooms, could use its $451 million transfer to classrooms to buy 1.5 million computers or to hire 11,275 teachers. California (61.7 percent) could use its $1.5 billion transfer to buy 5 million computers or to hire 37,500 teachers. Illinois (59.5 percent) would transfer $906 million to classrooms (3 million computers or 22,650 new teachers). To see how much money would flow into your state's classrooms under Byrne's approach, go to www.firstclasseducation.org.

Byrne, who lives in Utah and has made a bundle in various business ventures, was once advised by Warren Buffett to pretend he is a batter at the plate with no one calling balls and strikes, so he can wait for a perfect pitch -- a perfect idea. The 65 Percent Solution is perfect because it wins 80-plus percent support in polls and torments people who Byrne thinks should be tormented.

Buffett also advised him to ask himself this: If you had a silver bullet, what competitor would you shoot, and why? Byrne says he would shoot the National Education Association -- the largest teachers union. Byrne is pugnacious -- after graduating from Dartmouth, studying moral philosophy at Cambridge and earning a doctorate at Stanford, he tried a boxing career -- and relishes the prospect of the 65 percent requirement pitting teachers against other union members who are in the education bureaucracy. "Educrats," he says, "have become what city hall was 50 or 60 years ago" -- dens of patronage and corruption.

The 65 Percent Solution solves the misallocation of resources, but there is scant evidence that increasing financial inputs will by itself increase a school's cognitive outputs. Or that a small reduction in class size accomplishes much. Or that adding thousands of new teachers would do as much good as firing thousands of tenured incompetents.

However, firing a bad teacher is, according to a California official, less a choice than a career -- figure two years of struggle and $200,000 in legal costs. That is why in a recent five-year period only 62 of California's 220,000 tenured teachers were dismissed.

Much of the reallocated money under the 65 percent requirement would go for better pay for teachers, which is wiser than just adding more teachers. Chester Finn, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, notes that, while the number of pupils grew 50 percent in the past half-century, the number of teachers grew almost 300 percent. That pleased dues-collecting teachers unions and tuition-charging education schools. But if the number of teachers had grown apace with enrollments, and school budgets had risen as they have, teachers' salaries today would average nearly $100,000 instead of less than half that.

America, says Finn, has invested in more rather than better teachers -- at a time when career opportunities were expanding for the able women who once were the backbone of public education. The fact that teachers' salaries have just kept pace with inflation, in spite of enormous expansions of school budgets, explains why too often teachers are drawn "from the lower ranks of our lesser universities."

Arizona's House speaker and Senate president have endorsed the 65 percent requirement, which should encounter scant opposition here or in the other 49 states to which Byrne's organization, First Class Education, is coming.

georgewill@washpost.com


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