Be prepared for the next big thing in politically-motivated, GOP-backed bullshit regarding public education - the much-heralded and very controversial "65% Solution". It's coming to you via our esteemed boy-governor, Matt Blunt, in the form of a statewide referendum which is tentatively schedule for next November. I can almost hear the television commercials already.
This new educational shell game comes to us by way of a Washington, D. C. lobbying group called "First Class Education"(FCE) - an organization founded by millionaire entrepreneur Patrick M. Byrne, president of online shopping spot Overstock.com. Byrne, who is into martial arts and is a former boxer, fashions himself as the Robin Hood of public education. The 65% plan would supposedly improve classroom instruction by guaranteeing that 65% of all education revenue be directly targeted to teachers and students in the classroom. Sounds simple enough. This should play well here in God's country.
The idea is that educational bureaucracy promotes the mispending of education revenue on needless administrative fluff that is not directly related to the classroom. This sounds great on the surface. I've been one of the many teachers who believe there is a great deal of waste at the administrative level - not to mention some ridiculously high salaries. (The raise given Springfield's own superintendent last year represented 150% of my annual salary.)
Columnist George Will describes Byrne and his plan in an April Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post:
"Patrick Byrne, a 42-year-old bear of a man who bristles with ideas that have made him rich and restless, has an idea that can provide a new desktop computer for every student in America without costing taxpayers a new nickel. Or it could provide 300,000 new $40,000-a-year teachers without any increase in taxes. His idea -- call it the 65 Percent Solution -- is politically delicious because it unites parents, taxpayers and teachers while, he hopes, sowing dissension in the ranks of the teachers unions, which he considers the principal institutional impediment to improving primary and secondary education."
Politically delicious - yes indeed. This is why so many Republican governors are salivating at the idea of presenting this highly-marketable idea to the voting public. But is a referendum even necessary? Why not just present a bill and get it passed? Robert Leger, editorial page editor for our own News-Leader, questions Boy Blunt's motivation in his November 27 editorial. Leger wonders:
"So why a statewide vote? The top race on the November ballot will be the hotly contested campaign between Sen. Jim Talent and his Democratic challenger, Auditor Claire McCaskill. The issue conceivably helps the Republican.
Blunt, who has his own challenge from Attorney General Jay Nixon looming in 2008, would likely be featured in television ads supporting classroom teachers. That could help boost the image of a governor saddled with some of the lowest approval ratings in the nation."
Leger also mentions a memo emanating from the D. C. headquarters of "First Class Education which states:
"With the First Class Education issue on the ballot, Republicans will have a viable answer to 'in the classroom improvement of education' without the need to call for a tax increase, offsetting budget cuts in other popular programs or gimmick accounting and deficit spending.
The memo also lists other "tangential political advantages," such as pitting teachers and administrators against each other and building support for school vouchers."
Aha! The Trojan Horse has been exposed! This big initiative begins to look and sound very much like a Republican marketing plan to undo public education. How clever - plus, as an added bonus, it could also place teachers at odds with their own professional organizations like the NEA. FCE founder Byrne does little to hide his disdain for the nation's largest teacher's union. He once said that if he had one silver bullet he would use it to eliminate the NEA, an organization he views as a haven for "educrats". My experience, however, has been that the NEA has fought administrative over-spending and fluff in order to put more money into the classroom and increase teacher salaries, which is precisely what the "65% Solution" purports to do.
It's all very interesting. And I have to admit, even as an active NEA member, that the idea of cutting our top-heavy administrative positions and salaries in order to increase teacher pay and reduce class size makes perfect sense.
You can see how this will be marketed, and you can be sure the debate over this 'solution' will be loud and rancorous. Missouri NEA president, Greg Jung, has already issued a pointed rebuttal to the proposal, calling it "the 65% deception." Most opponents point to what they believe will be huge cuts in school libraries and counseling services, just for starters.
Though there are aspects of this 'solution' that appeal to me, I don't trust the GOP to back anything regarding public education because I strongly suspect their underlying long-term effort aims to promote a voucher system that will further stratify our society. On the other hand, I've been calling for education reform, particularly in the form of administrative cuts, for as long as I can remember.
Governor Blunt's little trial balloon on this issue sailed into town a couple of weeks ago, and it was routinely punctured by local school board officials, who criticized it as a "one size fits all" measure that imposed statewide standards indiscriminantly on diverse school systems - and diminishes local control. We'll be hearing more on this, you can bet on it.