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Reading, 'riting, red tape

National | Why are public schools spending almost as much on overhead as they are on in-classroom instruction?

Issue: "AIDS: Africa's affliction," Sept. 9, 2000

One day, Richard Culpepper found his plate too full. As a 5th-grade math teacher at a high-poverty urban school in Baton Rouge, La., he was teaching long division, fractions, and word problems to a classroom full of 10- and 11-year-olds, many of whom couldn't read the math textbook. Furthermore, administrators in Mr. Culpepper's school and district also required him to complete reams (literally) of daily, weekly, and annual forms, meet scores of local, state, and federal program requirements, participate in more than 150 daily, weekly, and annual noninstructional activities-such as school fundraisers, staff-appreciation activities, and student contests. On top of that, he had to prepare lesson plans, grade papers, administer achievement tests, exact discipline, and attend to the social, emotional, and physical needs of 26 children.

By 1995, he'd had enough.

The bureaucratic goblin had gnawed away so much of Mr. Culpepper's time for teaching that he decided to act. First, he tried working with his school's "improvement team" to reestablish instruction as his school's top priority. When that didn't work, he asked the superintendent of his district, which is among the top 1 percent of the nation's largest, to push the school board for changes. When that failed, he, along with the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana (APEL), took the fight to the state legislature. In 1999, lawmakers rewarded their efforts, directing the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to look into the problem. But that was a circular solution: The legislature had already passed a law directing the BESE to do that-back in 1991.

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Mr. Culpepper remains frustrated by the bureaucratic antidote to bureaucracy. But he isn't alone. Bureaucratic bloat is crowding out the supposed primary mission of public schools-teaching kids-in large districts across the country, according to education researcher Mike Antonucci.

"For decades now, Americans have accepted the premise that a large city requires one mammoth school district," says Mr. Antonucci, whose Education Intelligence Agency is based in California. "But evidence suggests that ... the larger a school district gets, the more resources it devotes to secondary or even nonessential activities." Support functions, like school nutrition programs, transportation, and health services become so institutionalized that they require support functions of their own, he says. "Before long the school district is no longer a school district, but a social-services center. Education-the original mission-loses primacy."

Borrowing a military term for a mission that has drifted off-target, Mr. Antonucci calls the problem "mission creep." Two main factors signal mission creep: manpower and money. In many large districts, fewer than half of all employees are teachers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Detroit, for example, just two of five school district employees are classroom teachers. In Philadelphia, 52 percent of the work force is made up of administrators, coordinators, aides, attendants, health workers, assistants, or maintenance workers. Of 25,000 employees, nearly 10 percent are janitors and building engineers. On the money side, the average U.S. school district spends about 62 percent of its budget on instruction. (That includes dollars spent for teacher salaries and benefits, as well as textbooks and classroom supplies.) But larger districts spend significantly less. In Florida, for example, the Orange County school district (which includes the city of Orlando) spends only about 52 percent of its budget on teaching kids. Florida's Broward County district spends about 55 percent, and Baltimore County in Maryland spends just over half of its budget on instruction.

In California, the spending train is careening further off-track. Legislators there are busily crafting a law that would divert more school dollars to social-services programs like peer counseling and "full-service" health clinics. Currently under consideration is AB 2556, a bill that would turn public schools into "community centers, places where young people and adults receive lifelong instruction as well as having access to necessary social services." For the first five years, such centers would be funded by grants that schools would match dollar-for-dollar from budgets that educrats already claim are too lean.

Similar programs rain down on all U.S. public schools from the federal, state, and local levels. But the job of mopping up the administrative mess often falls to classroom teachers. In Louisiana, for example, teachers spend the equivalent of 390 hours-or nearly 10 five-day work weeks-filling out forms, according to a 1999 APEL survey of 600 teachers in the state. About two-thirds of this paperwork is related to a noninstructional activity, like student banking, welfare reporting, or discipline.

Richard Culpepper says that individually, many such support programs are beneficial. But collectively, "they decrease teachers' meaningful interaction with kids, because programmed time eats away at flexibility. The teacher spends all his or her time implementing 'programs' and filling out paperwork instead of teaching."

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