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Taxpayers expect money to stay in classroom

March 02, 2006
If there was ever a question in anyone's mind whether Georgia taxpayers generously support public schools, let me put it to rest.

We are 16th in the nation in total education spending. Our starting teachers' salaries are eighth-highest in the country, and we spend a higher percentage of our state budget on education than 38 other states.

But as anyone who operates a business knows, it isn't just how much you spend that brings good returns but where you spend it.

That's why Gov. Sonny Perdue's common-sense proposal known as the "65 percent solution" is a bold move that puts education money where it should be: in the classroom teaching children.

The legislation would require the 117 school systems that now fail to spend at least 65 percent of their total revenues in the classroom to shift priorities beginning in the 2007-08 school year.

It would not impact school systems that already spend at least that amount in the classroom, covering about 50 percent of Georgia's 1.5 million students.

Salaries and benefits for teachers or aides would be considered classroom spending but not principals, janitors or other personnel. Field trips and textbooks would also be considered classroom expenses, for example.

Districts must shift at least 2 percent of their spending a year to achieve the 65 percent goal but could qualify for hardship waivers during a recession or other extreme circumstance.

For many of us parents, we assumed that most education dollars were already spent in the classroom. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case.

Looking at Georgia data, the evidence is compelling for the plan. The bottom 20 school districts that fare the worst in focusing education dollars on the classroom have some common characteristics.

They average 391 percent more in central office administration costs per student than the state average; 62 percent higher transportation costs; and 58 percent higher food service costs.

For example, the Atlanta Public Schools pay 34 administrators at least $100,000 annually. Clearly, there is money available to shift to the classroom.

These bottom 20 school districts average 10 points lower on state standardized tests than the top 20 districts, and an astounding 130 points lower on the SAT. The bottom 20 districts also have twice as many failing schools. That's enough correlation to convince me that when more money is spent in the classroom, student achievement follows.

Of the 20 top systems currently meeting or exceeding the 65 percent threshold, only three are in metro Atlanta. Eleven of those top 20 have 50 percent or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Obviously some low-income districts are getting it right, putting the emphasis on instruction.

What we are doing on the state level is no different than requirements that pupils read by the third grade to earn promotion, school safety policies or smaller class sizes.

The state pays about half of the cost to educate students and has a right to expect that at least 65 percent be spent in the classroom.

We also have given local school boards complete discretion over implementing the 65 percent standard. School boards can decide how they will increase classroom spending and what else will get cut.

With more money directed toward classroom instruction, we are likely to see smaller class sizes and more programs directed toward students who struggle. That's exactly what parents expect from their public schools.

As any parent or taxpayer knows, it isn't only how much you spend on education that matters but how you spend it.

The 65 percent solution moves us that much closer to getting a better return on our investment in all 180 school systems.

Jones, a Republican representative from North Fulton, chairs the education subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. She holds an MBA in finance from Georgia State University.

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