Tuesday, April 13, 2004


To check for dust, you do ‘’the white glove’’ test.

To check for stain removal safety, you do the ‘’try a small amount on an inconspicuous spot first’’ test.

But to check for the main cause of overspending in schools, you do ‘’the yearbook’’ test.

You get a yearbook from last school year, and one from yesteryear -- say, 30 or 40 years ago.

Smile at the hairdo’s and fashions in both. Then focus in on how many pictures there are of adult school staff . . . and how many there are of students.

See the gigantic change in the staff-to-child ratio? See the gigantic increase in nonteaching staff?

Bingo. That’s why it’s costing us so much more to educate kids today than in the past. It’s not that politicians, school administrators and union officials want to spend us all into bankruptcy, or teachers want to do a bad job for the kids. It’s just that they really are acting like drunken sailors lost in a raging hurricane of excessive personnel spending . . . and instead of bailing, they’re taking on more bilge.

A highly-placed Go Big Ed reader supplied an excellent example of this from an article a few years ago by Kevin Avram of the Nebraska-based think tank, the Niobrara Institute. Here’s an excerpt:

‘’In 1961 there were roughly 280,000 students in Nebraska who were being taught by 13,300 teachers. In 1980 Nebraska public schools still had 280,000 students but the number of teachers had jumped by 4,600. Move ahead another 20 years and we see that during the school year 1998-1999, there were 291,000 students and 20,100 teachers.’’

So there was just a slight uptick in the number of students served over those decades . . . but a huge increase in the number of classroom teachers employed to serve them. And each one of those extra employees needs a salary, benefits, materials, supplies, a parking place, heating and air conditioning, magazine subscriptions . . . you get the drift.

The Go Big Ed reader went a step further to report that at the turn of the last century, 1899-1900, in Nebraska the student-to-teacher ratio was 30.4 to 1 (288,227 students and 9,463 teachers).

But at Y2K, the 1999-2000 school year, with darn near exactly the same number of students in Nebraska classrooms, the number of teachers had more than proportionately doubled, to 14 to 1 (288,231 students taught by 20,412 teachers).

And that trend just continues stronger and stronger, even though enrollment is going down, too: in the 2001-02 school year, the student-staff ratio had dropped to 13.7-to-1 (285,095 students, 20,808 teachers).

Yeah, but . . . don’t kids come to school with more problems today than in yesterday, like rotten home lives and non-English speaking and so forth? Well . . . they’re not as poor as in yesteryear, their parents are far better educated, and we’re spending three times as much per pupil, after inflation.

Well, but . . . doesn’t it cost a lot more to employ ANYBODY in ANY field of work today? Yes, but personnel costs go far beyond salaries and benefits. It’s overstaffing, not necessarily overpayment of salaries and benefits, for example: having too many people in the boat rocks the boat. There are many other ways schools could hold the line on personnel costs and still do a good job: they could ‘’outsource’’ non-classroom functions, quit staffing and maintaining underused or shut-down buildings, terminate staff for programs that are unnecessary and/or ineffective, and use technology where appropriate to cut down on non-teaching staff.

Yeah, but . . . the main reason we have so many more people employed in schools today than yesterday is that we like smaller class sizes. Aren’t smaller class sizes better for kids? Well . . . no doubt about it, ‘til they’re reading, writing and figuring well, which should happen by third grade. After that, you can teach in a BARN or MEMORIAL STADIUM and do a great job . . . because everybody’s LITERATE. The most damning proof that schools today are causing ILLITERACY is the outcry by educators for smaller class sizes. I mean, it’s embarrassingly obvious. But with the boneheaded curriculum and instructional philosophies in place in the early grades in public schools, which mire kids in substandard reading and writing skills, even a 1:1 staff-child ratio isn’t going to work. No way. No how.

So why in the Sam Hill should we be throwing MORE money at this sad, strange state of affairs?

It’s clear that, besides bad curriculum in the early grades that keeps kids from reading, writing and figuring properly, which in turn brings on all kinds of problems that necessitate excessive staff in schools on down the road, the main reason for skyrocketing personnel costs in schools is that educators have gotten away for too long having too many people on staff.

It HAS to change, and change now, or the next generation of kids won’t be able to afford to publish a yearbook at all . . . because they’ll need soooooooooo many pages for staff pictures.


One in a series on Nebraska school finance issues based on an article on the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s education website this week:


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