Oregon Spends More to Improve Education, But Is it in the Right Places?

One thing you can say about Oregon’s latest education budget is that it doesn’t underspend. As the 2013 legislative session wound down, lawmakers approved the largest education budget in Oregon history in an effort to jumpstart the moribund schools that have been panned recently by education researchers at Education Week and StudentsFirst.

Yet opinions on the details of the budget are curiously split. While many welcome the additional funding – especially after years of belt-tightening – some believe it is hardly enough to make up for years of neglect. However. according to William Newell, writing for the Cascade Policy Institute website, the problem isn’t the amount of money that’s the issue, but where it is going.

Instead of investing too little, Oregon schools have failed to invest their scarce resources in the right places, namely students and teachers. A major part of the problem lies in the hiring of an ever-increasing number of administrators and non-teaching support staff who are soaking up highly valuable but limited funding. A report released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice shows that Oregon had a 47.3 percent increase in the number of administrators and non-teaching support staff from 1992 to 2009. This astounding growth more than triples that of students and teachers, which only grew by 15.4 percent and 12.7 percent respectively. Oregon schools now employ more administrators and non-teaching support staff than they do teachers.

It isn’t that Oregon students are not improving at all – according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they are. But their rate of improvement is lagging compared to the rest of the country. An improvement of 14% in math proficiency among 4th graders simply doesn’t sound as good when that still puts the state below the national average.

When over the same period the reading scores decline by 2 points, the problem becomes even more difficult to solve just by throwing more money at it indiscriminately. And it is hard to describe the spending patterns as anything but indiscriminate. Instead of investing in teachers and schools, the money is going to pad what some say is an already overinflated bureaucratic machine.

If the growth of administrators and support staff had risen in line with that of students, Oregon could have saved $302,612,947 per year according to the same Friedman Foundation report. These savings could have meant reducing taxes or employing new teachers and keeping young teachers from being fired due to district cuts. A little math shows that if Oregon spent that $300 million on employing teachers compensated at $80,000 (salary plus benefits), the state could have employed almost 3,782 more teachers than it does now.