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Debunked idea is stealth ally to voucher vote

A national school funding fad widely derided as a gimmick has been revived to boost passage of a pro-voucher ballot item.

Three years ago, the "65 percent solution" promised to force school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their money in classrooms. And for a while, politicians in Florida and across the nation joined the campaign.

But then a sobering analysis from the Standard & Poor's credit rating company undercut the idea, concluding it didn't correlate to better student performance. Within a year, the idea was on life support.

Now it's up and kicking again.

Florida voters in November are being asked by the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission to put just such language into the state Constitution. The commission included the 65 percent solution in Amendment 9, the same ballot measure seeking to revive former Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher program.

Serious policy wonks are shaking their heads, including some who support vouchers as a good tool for improving schools.

"The irony here is that 65 percent — which is probably a bad substantive idea — is being used with the aim of carrying the voucher proposal, which I find a good idea but one that tends to fare poorly in referenda," Frederick Hess, an influential education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an e-mail.

"So while I understand the tactical politics, I think it's an unfortunate development," Hess wrote.

The 65 percent solution was the product of Patrick Byrne, founder of online retailer Overstock.com. With a group called First Class Education, he aimed to have all 50 states pass 65 percent laws by 2008.

His idea played on widespread public perceptions — that school districts are larded with administrative fat, and that the best way to better schools is to pump more money into classrooms. Polls showed people loved it.

It didn't matter that experts across the political spectrum said 65 percent might as well have been pulled out of thin air. Or that defining "classroom expenses" was arbitrary, too. By late 2005, Byrne's brainchild had become a juggernaut.

More than a dozen states were considering it. A handful had passed it.

Florida jumped on the bandwagon. Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, now president of the Senate, proposed a constitutional amendment linking the 65 percent idea to more flexibility for the class-size amendment. He got a thumbs-up from Bush, and serious consideration from the 2006 Legislature, though he was eventually unsuccessful.

Among the reasons: A few months earlier, the Standard & Poor's study determined there was "no significant relationship between instructional spending at 65 percent or any other level and student performance." Whacked by a source with iron-clad credibility, the effort sputtered.

"That study really took the wind out of this movement," said Mike Griffith, senior finance analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks education policy in all 50 states.

Now the First Class Education Web site is dormant. The most recent article posted under "latest news" is from August 2006.

This year, Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, tried to revive the idea in the Florida Legislature, with Gov. Charlie Crist's support. But it was never heard in a single committee.

Then in April, the Tax and Budget Reform Commission tacked the 65 percent language onto its voucher plan.

Griffith said as far as he knew, Florida is the only state still pursuing the idea.

"When somebody brought it up, I was shocked," he said.

In Amendment 9, Bush allies on the commission fastened 65 percent to a wholly different plan: to change language in the state Constitution that requires the state to fund a "uniform" system of public schools.

The Florida Supreme Court relied on that language in 2006 to strike down Opportunity Scholarships, a Bush-backed program that offered private-school vouchers to children in failing public schools. The new language would change the wording to say the state's duty to educate children will be done "at a minimum and not exclusively" through public schools.

Supporters said it made sense to roll the two ideas into one amendment.

Both deal with education spending, said Greg Turbeville, a commission member and former Bush policy director. And in an effort to reduce the long list of amendments before voters in November, the commission thought it best to consolidate, he said.

"It was a judgment call," Turbeville said.

Opponents call that argument ludicrous. The linking of vouchers to a more popular but widely discredited policy shows Amendment 9 really is all about vouchers, they said — and that supporters are desperately trying to sweeten the pot to get it passed.

A second amendment tied to vouchers, Amendment 7, is not linked to any other policy proposals.

"It's a head feint," said Damien Filer, political director for Progress Florida, a group opposing Amendments 7 and 9.

A coalition of statewide education groups filed suit against both amendments two weeks ago, accusing the commission of "hiding the ball" on Amendment 9.

A statewide poll this month found 38 percent of voters supported Amendment 7.

But 63 percent supported Amendment 9.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

>>FAST FACTS

What percent in your district?

So what percent of education money now goes to Florida classrooms? It depends on whom you ask.

By federal standards, all of Florida and its 67 school districts fall short of 65 percent, based on the 2004-05 year, the latest available. Statewide, the figure is 59.1 percent based on a federal definition that includes teacher pay, instructional supplies, and "purchased services," including those for athletics and extracurricular activities. But it doesn't include librarians, guidance counselors and school nurses, and others.

The federal definition puts Pinellas at 56.6 percent; Hillsborough, 59.9; Pasco, 57.3; and Hernando, 57.5.

But no one in Florida expects the federal definition to be what Florida would use under Amendment 9, which leaves the definition up to the Legislature.

Debunked idea is stealth ally to voucher vote 06/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 6:26pm]
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