As you go to the polls next week, please consider the facts before voting to pour more money into the K–12 black hole.

Last week, The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released a comprehensive study which details an employment explosion in America’s public schools.

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.

And how much bang for our buck has the country received for this out-of-control hiring?

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.

Instead of this wasteful spending, had non-teaching personnel growth been in line with student growth and the teaching force had grown “only” 1.5 times as fast as student growth, our schools would have an additional $37.2 billion to spend. Benjamin Scafidi, the study’s author, makes some suggestions. He says we could:

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

In addition to national figures, the study includes an interactive state-by-state map. For those of us in cash-strapped California, the map shows that from1992-2009, student population increased 24 percent, but teachers, administrators and supplementary staff increased 36 percent. As a middle school teacher during this time period, I saw this first hand – my school experienced an ongoing increase in the number of deans, counselors, assistant principals, coordinators, coaches, teaching assistants, etc., but we fared no better academically with all the extra personnel.

As Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson pointed out recently:

Over the past four decades, real per pupil spending in California has roughly doubled. In dollar terms, Californians are spending $27 billion more today on K-12 education than they did in 1974, when Gov. Jerry Brown was first elected to office—and that is after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation.

The last dashed spike on the spending line is the increase if Prop 30 passes, as Governor Jerry Brown has been assuming. If it doesn’t pass, per pupil spending will still be up more than 80 percent over this period, after controlling for inflation. What’s more, there is no evidence that the fantastic spending increases of the past have done anything to improve student achievement.

The only state-level achievement data we have that go back this far are the SATs, and, taking into account the renorming that occurred in the mid 1990s, they have actually declined by five percent.

And a look at our latest National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores is anything but encouraging. For example, on the most recent 4th grade math test, California students came in 45th nationally; in science, the same 4th graders scored higher than only Mississippi.

On Election Day, Californians will be faced with two initiatives – Prop. 30 and Prop 38. If either passes, Golden Staters will be paying millions of dollars more in taxes every year, the bulk of which will be poured into public education. Prop 38 would raise income taxes for most Californians, but Prop. 30 is worse. Our nation-leading state sales tax of 7.25 percent would go up to 7.75 percent. And the top marginal income tax rate which is now 10.55 percent – third highest in the country – would become number one at 13.3 percent – a 26 percent increase.

As it is, roughly half our state budget already goes to public education. And it is apparent that featherbedding is rampant in our K-12 schools. With the economy of California starting to look like Greece, it’s time to get serious. All the warm and positively gooey pro-30 and 38 TV and radio ads are meant to tug at your heartstrings, and distract you from the more realistic image of more of your tax dollars are going up in smoke. If either prop becomes law, education won’t improve, but we will all be taxed at an even more exorbitant rate than we are now. And high-earners, job creators and corporations will continue to flee the state.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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