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Education's Moving Target

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By George F. Will
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Common sense and conservatism, which are usually similar, said that the No Child Left Behind law, which vastly expanded the federal government's supervision of education from kindergarten through 12th grade, was problematic for two reasons: A few of the 50 state governors are apt to be wise innovators, so let policymaking remain at state and local levels. And when Washington makes a mistake, as it has been known to do, it is a continental mistake.

The federal government has recently made one that subverts a promising development in education at the state level. That development is the 65 percent requirement: 65 percent of every school district's education operational budget should be spent on classroom instruction.

Nationally, 61.3 percent is so spent. The 3.7 percentage point difference amounts to nearly $15 billion, which could pay for 370,000 teachers at $40,000 apiece, or a computer for every K-12 student in the country. Only three states today hit the 65 percent target. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia spend less than 60 percent.

Although Georgia already was at 63.6 percent, Gov. Sonny Perdue won passage of a 65 percent requirement. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed legislation making 65 percent "the public policy goal of the state of Kansas." Texas Gov. Rick Perry did it by executive order.

Louisiana's legislature unanimously asked the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to enact the 65 percent goal. (It has not yet done so.) In Colorado, an initiative to mandate 65 percent is on the November ballot. Signatures are being gathered to put such an initiative on Oregon's 2008 ballot. When Minnesota's Democratic-controlled Senate blocked passage of a 65 percent requirement, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for a 70 percent requirement. Republican gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin endorse the idea.

But in July the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Education Department, undermined this national effort. A report on expenditures for public elementary and secondary education for the 2003-04 school year contained this finding: "The percentage of current expenditures spent on instruction and instruction-related activities was 66.1 percent in 2003-04 for the nation as a whole" (emphasis added). Seasoned students of government verbiage noted the suspiciously vague phrase "instruction-related activities."

Opacity is a sign of insincerity: Government language becomes opaque as the government's conscience becomes uneasy. When no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were found, the U.S. government began speaking foggily of finding "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."

Now that Americans' concern is shifting from how much money is spent on education to how much education the money is buying, government has blurred the measurement in a way that says 66.1 percent of education dollars already reach the classroom. If the "instruction-related" criterion is not added, the percentage of dollars devoted to instruction has declined for five consecutive years, to 61.3.

The 65 percent standard requires transparency from state education establishments, which may explain resistance to it. In Oregon, the House majority leader and chairman of the education committee have asked school districts for documentation of spending patterns, but no district has responded. A state senator says a lobbyist for the Oregon School Boards Association told him that he had asked them not to respond.

Perhaps Oregon's school bureaucrats are similar to Oklahoma's. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a think tank, asked all 539 school districts for spending details such as the number of employees making more than $75,000 a year; payments for lobbying and public relations; information as to whether competitive bidding was required for maintenance, food and transportation services; and the number of automobiles owned or reimbursed by the districts. (Many districts purchase vehicle insurance through the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, which can spend the profits it makes from this on lobbying the legislature and whose members have gone to court to keep a 65 percent requirement off this November's ballot.) Two-thirds of Oklahoma's districts have not responded.

Warren Buffett has written that "yardsticks seldom are discarded while yielding favorable readings," but when readings are unfavorable, "a more flexible measurement system often suggests itself: Just shoot the arrow of business performance into a blank canvas and then carefully draw the bull's-eye around the implanted arrow."

No Child Left Behind supposedly promotes education accountability by mandating reliable data to measure progress. But Washington looks like an untrustworthy manipulator of data when it uses the phrase "instruction-related activity" to draw a bull's-eye around the status quo.

georgewill@washpost.com


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