K-12 Education System as Jobs Program? Let's Agree on Something Better

In a lot of the debates Colorado has had about school funding (and more are sure to be had), the question lurking in the back of my mind is: What do we want our education system to be? What do we want it to do? Well, a new study from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice sends a blunt message about one key thing the education system in at least 47 states has been: a jobs program.

The School Staffing Surge highlights a couple facts that would probably stun the average parent or other taxpayer:

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.

The study interestingly found that the federal No Child Left Behind law was not responsible for the growth in K-12 payrolls. Author Benjamin Scafidi also broke down the results state by state. Hold your hats, Coloradans. Our state certainly hasn’t been the worst, but we have not been immune.

While Colorado student enrollment grew 38 percent from 1992 to 2009, total K-12 staff increased by 64 percent. And non-teaching staff climbed 83 percent — more than twice as fast as the number of enrolled students — compared to 47 percent growth in the number of teaching positions.

But hey, at least K-12 government agencies aren’t for-profit entities, right? Silly me. I guess those who assail the for-profit entities involved in education could be taken more seriously if they also had a problem with teachers making a profit off selling lesson plans and curricula.

Alas, teacher entrepreneurship hardly supports the idea of K-12 education as a jobs program. It could still be promoted if we followed the Friedman report’s jaw-dropping punchline to its conclusion. Scafidi says more than $37 billion in annual savings could have been achieved if non-teaching K-12 staff had grown at the same rate as — and teaching staff at 1.5 times the rate of — student enrollment.

What could that do for larger performance-based teacher salaries, tax relief, school choice scholarships, early childhood education programs, or some combination thereof? We can debate about what we want our education system to be, but the jobs program idea hasn’t worked out so well. More of us should agree it’s time to stop feeding the beast.