When Gov. Matt Blunt proposed that school districts in Missouri spend at least 65 percent of their budget on student instruction, his heart was in the right place. But Blunt should have known that you don't take any control away from local school boards. Because of stout opposition to the proposal as a mandate, Blunt weakened the idea to a mere suggestion. Some school officials think that is even going too far.
I fully understand what the Governor was trying to accomplish. But he may have offered a solution in search of a problem. We've found that in our region, at least, virtually every school district meets that spending guideline already. To accept another state mandate would have been wrong.
Everyone in Missouri state government is seeking some solution for declining test scores and problem schools. Many of the most severe problem schools are located in the urban centers. But rural Missouri is not without its share of declining schools as well.
Throwing more state tax dollars to improve education results has proven an empty promise. It won't take more dollars to solve this social problem. Blunt's suggestion was to impress on schools that student instruction should come first while administrative costs should come last. He may have failed in his first attempt but we suspect he got his point across.
Local school officials throughout Missouri are in Jefferson City this week to testify against any move that would require specific spending plans at the local level. They say - and rightfully so - that student performance is more important than a spending target. We couldn't agree more.
But here's the problem. Schools are still facing a widening gap between performers and non-performers. Most schools have been successful in bringing more students into the "acceptable" learning range but still battle daily with a growing number of students who consistently perform far below level. My fear is that we'll spend our time and resources trying to elevate these non-performers at the expense of those students willing and ready to learn even more. Mark my words, my worst fears will come true.
In the background of all this discussion is the highly unpopular No Child Left Behind legislation. This flawed federal mandate is based on a premise that all students are anxious to excel. But in the real world, that belief is just flat wrong. No amount of spending or adjusting budgets will help those unwilling to help themselves. If they come to school unwilling and unprepared to learn, they will leave the very same way.
Blunt's idea was well-intended but naive. He'll learn from this experience. And hopefully those schools spending foolishly will learn a lesson as well.