Have U.S. Schools Become Just Another Jobs Program?

October 25th, 2012 by Leave a Comment

(This article was written for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  The author is a Friedman Fellow.  The chart below shows how 1992 – 2009 Georgia public school personnel growth for teachers and all other personnel far exceeded student population growth.)

By Benjamin Scafidi

Benjamin Scafidi, Professor of Economics, Georgia College and State University

America’s K-12 public education system has experienced tremendous historical growth in employment, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Between fiscal year (FY) 1950 and FY 2009, the number of K-12 public school students in the United States increased by 96 percent while the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) school employees grew 386 percent. Public schools grew staffing at a rate four times faster than the increase in students over that time period. Of those personnel, teachers’ numbers increased 252 percent while administrators and other staff experienced growth of 702 percent, more than seven times the increase in students.

In a recent Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, Lindsey Burke (2012) reports that since 1970, the number of students in American public schools increased by 8 percent while the number of teachers increased 60 percent and the number of non-teaching personnel increased 138 percent.

That hiring pattern has persisted in more recent years as well. This report analyzes the rise in public school personnel relative to the increase in students since FY 1992. Analyses are provided for the nation as a whole and for each state.  (Click here to read the entire Friedman Foundation report written by Benjamin Scafidi.)

Between FY 1992 and FY 2009, the number of K-12 public school students nationwide grew 17 percent while the number of full-time equivalent school employees increased 39 percent, 2.3 times greater than the increase in students over that 18-year period. Among school personnel, teachers’ staffing numbers rose 32 percent while administrators and other staff experienced growth of 46 percent; the growth in the number of administrators and other staff was 2.7 times that of students.

Importantly, such growth cannot be attributed to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. During the pre-NCLB period, FY 1992 to FY 2001, public schools’ student population grew 13 percent while public education personnel rose 29 percent—a 23 percent increase for teachers and a 37 percent increase for administrators and other staff. Post-NCLB (FY 2002 to FY 2009), employment growth (7 percent) still outpaced student numbers (3 percent). Teachers and administrators increased at about the same rate of 7 percent.

The chief difference between the NCLB era and the prior time period is the trend toward increasing non-teaching staff at a rate greater than teachers was halted—with NCLB, teachers and non-teaching staff both increased at the same rate (more than twice as fast as student enrollment). In both the pre- and post-NCLB periods analyzed, overall staffing in public education grew about 2.3 times faster than the increase in students.

Compared to other nations’ schools, U.S. public schools devote significantly higher fractions of their operating budgets to non-teaching personnel—and lower portions to teachers. Meanwhile, the U.S. is one of the highest spending nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)  when it comes to K-12 education.

Notably, different states experienced different patterns from FY 1992 to FY 2009. For ease of exposition, Washington, D.C., is treated as a state. During that time, 48 states grew total school personnel at a faster rate than their increase in students—or decreased school personnel at a slower rate than their declines in students. Forty-six states increased teachers and 48 states grew non-teaching personnel at faster rates than their uptick in students.

Even when student populations were dropping, public school systems were increasing staffing between 1992 and 2009. Nine states with declining student populations had significant increases in public school personnel—D.C., Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Vermont. For example, Maine experienced an 11 percent decline in students from 1992-2009; however, the number of public school personnel increased by 35 percent. Perhaps more noteworthy during that period is the number of teachers in Maine public schools increased by 3 percent while the number of non-teaching personnel increased by 76 percent. An additional two states with declining student populations—Montana and West Virginia—did not decrease staffing at nearly the same rate as their declines in students.

Only three states, between 1992 and 2009, increased public school personnel at a slower rate than their rise in students—Arizona, Illinois, and South Carolina.

There is no evidence in the aggregate that the increase in public school staffing caused student achievement to improve. In a shocking finding, economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman and his co-author, Paul LaFontaine, found that public high school graduation rates peaked around 1970. Thus, as staffing was rising dramatically in public schools, graduation rates were not.

In addition, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-Term Trend exam for 17-year-old students in public schools have not increased during the time period studied. Between 1992 and 2008, public schools’ NAEP reading scores fell slightly while scores in mathematics were stagnant.  After the sizeable increase in the teaching force and the dramatic upsurge in the hiring of non-teaching personnel, student achievement in American public schools has been roughly flat or modestly in decline.

As more adults gain employment in public schools, there is no evidence their numbers are leading to improved academic outcomes for students. And this increase in staffing has a significant opportunity cost. If non-teaching personnel had grown at the same rate as the growth in students and if the teaching force had grown “only” 1.5 times as fast as the growth in students, American public schools would have an additional $37.2 billion to spend per year. This $37.2 billion in annual recurring savings could be used:

  • to raise every public school teacher’s salary by more than $11,700 per year;
  • to more than double taxpayer funding for early childhood education;
  • to provide property tax relief;
  • to lessen fiscal stress on state and local  governments;
  • to give families of each child in poverty more than  $2,600 in cash per child;
  • to give each child in poverty a voucher worth  more than $2,600 to attend the private school of his  or her parents’ choice;
  • or to support a combination of the above or for some other worthy purpose.

(Benjamin Scafidi is a Fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  He is also a Senior Fellow for Education Policy at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

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