Remember the 65% solution? It was the topic of much debate and several initiatives five to ten years ago. It mandated that school districts spend 65% of their revenues “in the classroom.”
This made for useful sound bites, but was always problematic because the definition of classroom spending was amorphous. Principals and curriculum specialists weren’t classroom spending, but teachers’ dental benefits were. There was bound to be a lot of cheating to reach the magic number. Unions hated it. And even though unions hated it, I didn’t like it either. In 2006, I wrote that I remained “doubtful that meeting such a threshold has any effect on the quality of instruction or on student performance.”
It looks like Georgia has come to the same conclusion, after six years of experimentation with a 65% law. A state commission is planning to draw up legislation to repeal the law.
“It certainly sounded like a very good idea, but it turned out based upon statistical data, it doesn’t have relevance to academic performance,” said state Senate education committee chairman Fran Millar, a Republican from Atlanta who sponsored the legislation creating the 65 percent law. “At the end of the day, academically, it didn’t make any sense.”
Texas was the only other state to pass such a law, and it was repealed in 2009.
When this was a big issue, I checked the 65% threshold for each of the nation’s 14,000 school districts and discovered there were significant diseconomies of scale. That is, the smaller the district was, the more likely it was to spend 65% or more in the classroom.
In 2003-04, the U.S. had 26 school districts with more than 100,000 students. Of these, only New York City and Cobb County, Georgia, met the 65% threshold. That’s a success rate of 7.7 percent.
An additional 61 school districts had between 50,000 and 100,000 students. Of these, five (8.2 percent) met the mark.
Let’s continue down the rankings. There were 170 school districts with 25,000 to 50,000 students. Of these, 25 spent 65% on instruction (14.7 percent).
Then we reach a plateau. There were 7,152 districts with an enrollment between 1,000 and 25,000 students. Of these, 1,213 (17.0 percent) reached 65% on instructional spending. No matter how you subdivide this group, there is little deviation in how many districts meet the mark. But below 1,000 enrollment, the pattern resumed.
There were 2,382 districts with between 500 and 1,000 students. Of these, 476 (20.0 percent) reached the 65% mark. And of the 4,427 districts with fewer than 500 students, 976 (22.0 percent) met the 65% mark.
In short, it appears the 65% solution was merely a manifestation of how money is spent in large school districts when compared to small. That’s still a question worth exploring, even as the 65% solution fades into education history.