For school equality, try mobility

Dumb liberal ideas in education are a dime a dozen, and during my time as superintendent of Houston's schools and as the United States secretary of education I battled against all sorts of progressivist lunacy, from whole-language reading to fuzzy math to lifetime teacher tenure. Today, however, one of the worst ideas in education is coming from conservatives: the so-called 65 percent solution.

This movement, bankrolled largely by Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, wants states to mandate that 65 percent of school dollars be spent "in the classroom." Budget items like teacher salaries would count; librarians, transportation costs and upkeep of buildings would not.

Proponents argue that this will counter wasteful spending and runaway school "overhead," and they have convinced many voters--a Harris poll last fall put national support at more than 70 percent. Four states--Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas--have adopted 65 percent mandates and at least six more are seriously considering them.

The only drawback is that such laws won't actually make schools any better, and could make them worse. Yes, it's true that education financing is a mess and that billions are wasted every year. But the 65 percent solution won't help. The most likely outcome is that school officials will learn the art of creative accounting in order to increase the percentage of money that can be deemed "classroom" expenses.

More ominously, it will tie school leaders' hands at a time when they need more freedom to innovate. Things we should be stressing, like teacher training, online content to supplement lessons, and after-school tutoring, would not fall under "classroom expenses."

What we need is a 100 percent solution, a reform that tackles America's antiquated education financing system, gives dynamic school leaders more freedom, fosters true equity, and opens the door wider to school choice.

Our schools are failing our most at-risk students. Only 30 percent of eighth graders are "proficient" or "advanced" in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Math scores are nearly as bad. The No Child Left Behind Act is helping, by focusing attention on our neediest students, but it will succeed only if we recognize that certain children require more resources to educate than others.

Most children living in poverty, for example, need longer school days and years, better teachers and materials, and extra services like tutoring.

A second problem is that as we enter a new era of choice-driven schooling, with a growing menu of options from charter schools to virtual schools to cross-district choices, the old budgeting model is getting in the way. Charter schools, for example, receive on average only 80 cents on the dollar compared to traditional schools. A million children attend charter schools, but in most places we essentially tell them that their education is worth considerably less than that of their friends in district-run schools.

Instead of gimmicky fads, we need fundamental reforms. One good idea now picking up support is "weighted student funding." Under this approach, each child receives a "backpack" of financing that travels with him to the public school of his family's choice. The more disadvantaged the child, the bigger the backpack.

When that money arrives at a school, principals have freedom to spend it as they see fit. Does the school need to pay more to snag a top-notch math teacher? Are extra hours needed to allow for intensive tutoring? Principals would be able to allocate resources accordingly; accountability systems like No Child Left Behind give them strong incentives to make good decisions.

What about reducing administrative waste, the primary aim of the 65 percent solution? Weighted financing handles this better, too: because principals are given full control over their budgets, they can choose whether to forgo a new coat of paint--or, better, consultants and travel expenses--in favor of an additional classroom aide.

Weighted student financing was pioneered in Edmonton, Alberta, in the 1970s and has now been tried in a handful of cities including Houston, San Francisco, and Seattle. These experiments have shown considerable promise. In Edmonton, education reforms based on a weighted system helped turn the city's struggling public schools into some of Canada's finest-80 percent of students regularly score at or above grade level on standardized tests.

Perhaps the best thing about weighted student financing is that it's a reform both liberals and conservatives can support. Liberals should like the extra investment in needy children; conservatives should appreciate its positive effects on deregulation and school choice. That's why Democrats like John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and former Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina have joined Republicans like me and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett in supporting weighted financing. When it comes to educating our children, we should all put politics aside.

This article originally appeared in the June 27 New York Times.

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