Teach Our Children: The Blob at Work

The Friedman Foundation has published an intriguing report on The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth In America’s Public Schools. The numbers are astounding:

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.

Increases between 1992 and 2009: students, 17%; teachers, 32%; staff, 46%. In 2009, the nation’s public school systems employed 3.2 million teachers and 3.1 million non-teaching staff. All this, for what appears to be essentially no net gain in educational achievement.

I’m pretty sure economists have gone over these numbers every which way; I simply don’t know the literature and have no time to find out. Herewith a few questions and wild guesses:

  • What drives the striking increase especially of non-teaching staff? Part of the story, surely, is bureaucratization and centralization. But I bet other potent factors are also at work. Changed family structures (and breakdown), for instance: schools now do a bunch of things parents used to do, like feeding them breakfast. Suburbanization requires a lot more bus drivers. All the IT requires a ton of people.  And so on. Few of these hires will improve student performance; but they don’t necessarily signal administrative bloat, either. You’d have to break down the numbers to get a better sense.
  • Federalism Alert (1): To what extent are the increases driven by federal (and state) interventions, regulations, and funding? Surely, again, that’s a factor. The federal Individuals With Disabilities Act, for a famous example, requires a ton of services for special-ed kids, and those in turn require a horde of providers. But again, that can’t be the entire story. Strikingly, the report argues that No Child Left Behind, widely denounced as an egregious example of federal meddling, does not appear to have prompted big employment increases (although it may have affected what the employees do with their time).
  • Federalism Alert (2): The reported state-to-state differences are nothing short of mind-blowing. A few states have held non-teaching employment growth in line with student population. This typically happens in states with exploding student populations (Nevada, Florida, Arizona): apparently, they can’t find support staff fast enough. Still, it can be done—but usually isn’t. Alas, my supposedly well-governed home state of Virginia takes the cake. Between 1992 and 2009, the student population grew by 21.6%. The Commonwealth hired one new net teacher for every two new students. (Egad! A higher student-teacher ratio!! Call the NEA!!!). However, Virginia doubled the count of non-teaching personnel. Whenever anything bad happens anywhere on the planet, three “grief counselors” descend upon my sons; now I know why. What I don’t know: what accounts for the stupendous state-to-state differences? And when education groups, sub-groups, and splinter groups meet to compare notes and “best practices,” do any of them ever look to who manages to do more with less?
  • FY 2009 was a near-peak year for public employment, including education. The “Stimulus” pumped additional money into schools; when it ran out, employment fell off a cliff. How have schools coped? The employment losses are in the hundreds of thousands; did that affect school performance in any way? If “no,” can we let go of another, say, 10% (roughly 300,000) non-teaching staff?
  • Do all or most of these people have pensions? If so, who is going to pay for them?
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