George Will

Common sense and conservatism, which are usually similar, said the No Child Left Behind law, which vastly expanded the federal government's supervision of education grades K through 12, was problematic for two reasons: A few of the 50 state governors are apt to be wise innovators, so let policymaking remain at state and local levels. And when Washington makes a mistake, as it has been known to do, it is a continental mistake.

The federal government has recently made one that subverts a promising development in education, at the state level. That development is the 65 percent requirement: 65 percent of every school district's education operational budget should be spent on classroom instruction.

Nationally, 61.3 percent is so spent. The 3.7 percent difference amounts to nearly $15 billion, which could pay for 370,000 teachers at $40,000 apiece, or a computer for every K through 12 student in the country. Only three states today hit the 65 percent target. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia spend less than 60 percent.

Although Georgia already was at 63.6 percent, Gov. Sonny Perdue won passage of a 65 percent requirement. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed legislation making 65 percent "the public policy goal of the state of Kansas." Texas Gov. Rick Perry did it by executive order. Louisiana's Legislature unanimously asked the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to enact the 65 percent goal. (It has not yet done so.) In Colorado, an initiative to mandate 65 percent is on the November ballot. Signatures are being gathered to put such an initiative on Oregon's 2008 ballot. When Minnesota's Democratic-controlled Senate blocked passage of a 65 percent requirement, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for a 70 percent requirement. Republican gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin endorse the idea.

But in July, the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, undermined this national effort. A report on expenditures for public elementary and secondary education for the 2003-04 school year contained this finding: "The percentage of current expenditures spent on instruction and instruction-related activities was 66.1 percent in 2003-04 for the nation as a whole" (emphasis added). Seasoned students of government verbiage noted the suspiciously vague phrase "instruction-related activities."

Opacity is a sign of insincerity: Government language becomes opaque as the government's conscience becomes uneasy. When no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were found, the U.S. government began speaking foggily of finding "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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