In 1989, before the push to impose statewide K-12 standards in Texas, there were 196,497 teachers supported by 180,728 non-teaching staff for a total of 377,225 people. This public school workforce taught 3,271,509 students.
But, the public education system in Texas came under criticism for its uneven results. Some school districts saw high dropout rates and low learning outcomes. This led to a number of high profile efforts to reform the system, beginning with the first major school funding lawsuit in 1984 and H. Ross Perot’s proposal in the same year for a basic skills test as a prerequisite to earning a diploma coupled with preschool for poor and non-English speaking students, competency tests for teachers, a maximum class size of 22 in early grades and a $2.8 billion tax hike to pay for it all.
By 1993, during Gov. Ann Richard’s administration, the first annual statewide test for all public school students in Texas was implemented as part of a school accountability plan. The Robin Hood school funding system which encourages property taxes from high property value school districts to be redistributed to property poor districts also started in the 1992-93 biennium.
In 1994 one of George Bush’s main gubernatorial campaign issues was improving Texas public schools. After winning office, he supported legislation that aimed to improve elementary school results while imposing more central oversight on local schools.
2001’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act took these centralizing precepts to the national level. NCLB used federal billions of dollars in funds as both carrot and stick to encourage high standards verified through testing and measurable goals. Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, not yet Speaker, introduced the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001on behalf of President George W. Bush in the U.S. House of Representatives. On March 22, 2001, he rose to support it, saying that NCLB, “…will refocus federal efforts to close the achievement gap by giving States and local schools greater flexibility in the use of Federal education dollars in exchange for greater accountability for results.”
Of course, accountability requires a means to measure results and measuring results requires someone to do it. How much is the question.
For 30 years, much of Texas education policy has been handled in the courts rather than in the legislature. The latest lawsuit, filed in 2011 after a particularly tight budget year, claims that the state’s school finance system violates the Texas Constitution. This legal contest boils down to three basic issues: how much money Texas spends on its public schools; funding equity from district to district; and reporting and accountability requirements.
The American public school system has traditionally been tied to property taxes. This meant that local taxes funded local schools. Accountability was at the community level.
But, some areas have far lower property values than others, leading to disparities in per pupil revenue from school district to school district. This is one of the rationales behind increased federal and state funding to schools. By 2010 only 44 percent of K-12 funds came from local sources, with 43 percent coming from the state and 13 percent from the federal government.
But federal and state funds present a Faustian bargain: more money but more mandates and requirements. Common Core is the logical end of the centralizing trend in public education.
A 2007 report that compared public education statistics between the U.S. and its most advanced economic competitors, the nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), showed that America spent 25.7 percent of its public education funds on compensating non-teaching staff vs. 15.5 percent among all the OECD nations. These means that, compared to nations such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and Korea, the U.S. spends about 66 percent more on its public education bureaucracy than do other advanced economies.
The trend to spend on non-classroom bureaucracy is seen nationally and in Texas as well. In 1950, every non-classroom support person, from principals to secretaries, supported 2.4 teachers. By 1960, the ratio dropped to one support staff for every 1.8 teachers. By 1980, it was one staffer for every 1.1 teachers. In 2010, the ratio reached parity: for every classroom teacher there’s one support staffer.
Reporting drives a portion of this growth in non-teaching support staff. Comparing Texas to the rest of the nation from 1995 to 2002, the period that Texas led the way in centralizing and standardizing public education, shows that Texas grew its non-teaching bureaucracy more rapidly than did the other 49 states and D.C.
Of course, even with increased reporting requirements, it’s curious that public education would experience such significant growth in non-teaching staff during a time when the information revolution resulted in massive declines in the relative numbers of many support positions. For instance, the U.S. government statistics show that the number of people working as “general office clerks” declined from 2,869,990 in 1997 to 2,808,100 in 2012. Compared to the total U.S. workforce, however, general office clerks saw a relative reduction of 12 percent in proportional employment over 15 years. The decline in relative number of legal secretaries is even more striking as computers enabled lawyers to type up more of their own correspondence. In 1997, there was one legal secretary for every 1.6 lawyers. By 2012, there was one legal secretary for every 2.8 lawyers, a 42 percent reduction. Yet, even as private industry shed non-productive support positions, the education establishment hired them more at a more rapid pace than they did teachers.
Numerous studies have shown that per pupil public education spending has more than doubled in inflation adjusted terms since 1970, yet both math and reading scores have been stagnant since then. In 1970, the average American teacher had 22.6 students in a class. Today, they have 16. So, results certainly do not flow from money. In Texas, we have 15.4—fewer students in the classroom than the national average—a fact one would be hard-pressed to hear amidst the non-stop insistence that we underfund our schools in Texas.
Further, even with 2012’s budget-driven layoffs in public education, it’s important to note that teachers have, on average, fewer students in their classrooms in Texas than was the case in 1995 and before. In fact, compared to the classroom of 1950, an era with none of the modern conveniences of Internet access or distance learning, the average Texas teacher today leads a classroom filled with about half of the students as was the case 60 years ago.
That said, what if Texas had restrained the ratio of support staff to teachers at 1989 levels and instead applied the money saved towards paying teachers? Since non-classroom bureaucrats are paid far more than are teachers, each support position not hired would result in the ability to pay 1.5 teachers. By 2012, the effect would be pronounced, with 9,716 teachers in the classroom supported by 6,651 fewer administrators. Alternatively, had Texas simply not hired almost 7,000 support staff, the annual budget savings to Texas taxpayers would be at least $500 million.
All of which brings us back around to the Texas school funding lawsuit. Anyone want to bet on the odds that the judge in the case rules that Texas should get its public school administrative bloat under control before seeking to throw more taxpayer money at the system?
The Hon. Chuck DeVore is the Vice President of Policy at Texas Public Policy Foundation. Follow him on Twitter