Although there’s constant talk of teacher shortages and the fact that a position in K-12 education is no longer a guaranteed sinecure, these complaints disguise the fact that since the 1950s, the number of teachers and non-faculty support staff has substantially outpaced the growth in the number of students. According to the data published by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, while the number of students rose by 96%, the number of teachers and other full-time personnel grew by an astounding 386%.
The information is no less puzzling if the time window is shrunk further. Between 1970 and today, the number of students grew by 8% while the increase in the number of teachers outpaced that by more than 7 times over. Although the disparity has shrunk somewhat since 1992, the trend has by no means reversed. The growth of teaching positions and non-teaching staff is continuing to outpace student growth even today.
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.
Although many are tempted to blame this disparity on the testing initiatives like the No Child Left Behind act, in reality, the phenomenon well predates the legislation in question. The gap between the rates of student growth and the growth of the number of teachers and administrators actually slowed down since NCLB passed.
The only change that NCLB brought about was a reigning in of the out-of-control growth of administrative non-teaching staff. Prior to passage, the number of administrators hired outpaced the growth of both students and teachers. Since the passage, the rate of hire of teachers and administrators has about equalized.
As a matter of fact, there doesn’t appear to be any meaningful relationship between the number of teachers and administrators a state or a district appears to need and the number of students they’re actually charged with education.
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.
This issue is important because lack of funding has been chiefly blamed for recent underperformance of America’s schools. However, according to the “School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools” – a report published by The Friedman Foundation – the schools would have been able to achieve substantial savings had they somehow followed the trend set by student numbers when assessing their personnel needs. How much? Well, according to the data in the report, the states could save – in total – about $24 billion had they pegged their staffing needs to student numbers.
Texas would have been able to realize a full quarter of those savings had their schools not increased their teaching and non-teaching numbers at a faster rate than student growth. More than $6.4 billion in savings could have been achieved had the state forgone hiring nearly 160,000 additional employees in excess of growth in student enrollment.
Virginia would have had an extra $29,007 to spend per teacher if it had limited the growth of administrators and other non-teaching staff to its growth in students from FY 1992 to FY 2009. Maine would have had an extra $25,505 per teacher, and the District of Columbia would have had an extra $20,472. Those funds could have been spent on salary increases for teachers or some other worthy purpose.
In an effort at belt tightening, the states could have also taken a closer look at their student/non-teaching-staff ratio which differed widely state-to-state.
For example, whereas Vermont has only 8.8 students for every administrator or other non-teaching employee and Maine has only 9.4 students per non-teaching employee, Rhode Island has 20 students per every administrator or other non-teaching employee. Wyoming has 9.9 students per every non-teaching employee, whereas Idaho has 22.7 students per nonteaching employee. Those differences are much larger than the differences in the employment of teachers.
Still, this employment growth could possibly be justified if it had brought with it an improvement in student outcomes. However, according to the report, this was far from the case. When judged by test scores and high school graduation rates, the country as a whole has not benefited from all these additional teaching and non-teaching jobs. Although some states saw substantial improvement, this was not a trend that was evident nationwide. This fact strongly indicates that the gains in achievement can be attributed to other factors than increase in employment.
Readers should keep in mind the concept of opportunity cost when making determinations for their individual states. One should ask whether the significant resources used to finance employment increases could have been spent better elsewhere. Would those taxpayer funds have gone further via vouchers or taxcredit scholarships, which enable students to attend schools better suited to their needs? Would raises for teachers have been a wiser investment? Perhaps letting taxpayers keep those funds may have been more effective. Those questions need to be asked and analyzed in every state capitol—inside by lawmakers and outside by parents, education reformers, the business community, and others. The burden of proof is now on those who still want to maintain or even increase the dramatically larger staffing levels in public schools.