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Associated Press/Photo by April Castro

Money for nothing

Back to School | Big increases in educational spending by the government have not yielded a better educational product

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

When thousands of Texas teachers marched on the State Capitol in Austin this spring to protest proposed cuts in state funding for K-12 education, some carried signs claiming that tens of thousands of teachers would be laid off. To varying degrees similar alarms went off in Wisconsin, California, and 36 others states where legislatures struggled with how to respond to big projected budget deficits.

By late June, when the Texas legislature finally passed its biennial budget, it turned out that state spending on K-12 education in 2012 and 2013 is "cut" only in the sense that schools will be getting a $1.6 billion increase in state funding next year instead of the $3.6 billion hike they would have received under the state's previous school funding formula.

To be sure, some Texas teachers did get layoff notices, especially in districts hardest hit by declines in revenue from local property taxes. But thanks to Texas' continuing population growth, the number of new positions in the coming school year could exceed the combined effect of layoffs and attrition.

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In states with less growth, or even more intense budget pressure, teacher layoffs have been a bigger concern. Arizona saw the number of public-school teachers shrink 5 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, the last year for which data are available. North Carolina teachers' ranks fell 4.2 percent that same year. Yet even in those places the relentless teacher attrition rate-half of all teachers nationally leave the profession voluntarily within five years of starting-has reduced the number of layoffs that were necessary.

Not that the public is widely aware of that. When tens of thousands of teachers get layoff warning letters it is typically big news. Not so when the number of layoffs turns out to be dramatically smaller. For example, stories from financially troubled California early this year screamed that tens of thousands of teaching jobs were on the chopping block for the 2011-2012 school year. But state lawmakers ended up attaching a last-minute measure to California's budget package that requires school districts to keep the same number of teachers for the approaching school year as they had last year.

New York and Detroit announced big teacher layoff programs this spring, and reporters wrote big stories. The final totals received scant notice. Negotiations between the city of New York and its teachers union preserved the jobs of all 4,700 teachers who'd been warned they might be laid off. In return for keeping those jobs, the union agreed to let the city not replace 2,600 teachers who are retiring or leaving on their own.

In Detroit, struggling because of dramatic population and tax base declines, school district leaders in February warned that all 5,466 of the district's unionized employees could be laid off. This summer the school system said that only 850 mostly non-teaching jobs will be cut and that all remaining employees will take a 10 percent pay cut.

Education reformers say exaggerated warnings of massive teacher layoffs and of big program cuts are standard practice, as is the education establishment's message: Reduced spending will jeopardize the quality of education received by current and future students. But Rob Eissler, the Republican chairman of the Texas House's Public Education Committee says, "There's 40 years of data showing that increased spending on education has not moved the dial on average student achievement. Yet our behavior has been that if we just put more money into schools they'll improve."

Neal McCluskey of the libertarian Cato Institute has documented the inefficacy of federal spending on K-12 education, which rose 133 percent from 1970 to 2006. Total real spending per pupil (counting all sources of money) rose 122 percent, from $5,593 to $12,463. Yet, since the early '70s the scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress-often called "The Nation's Report Card"-are virtually unchanged.

So if all that extra spending hasn't led to significant improvement in average student achievement, what has it bought? For starters: more teachers. Over the last 40 years the notion that low student-teacher ratios improve learning and student achievement has become deeply ingrained in American thought. The student-teacher ratio nationally today is 15.5-to-1. In 1965 it was 25.8-to-1. From the 2000-2001 school year through 2009-2010 the number of public-school teachers across the nation grew 9 percent, almost twice the 4.7 percent growth rate in public-school enrollments.

Eissler says the academic evidence shows that schools could move back at least half-way toward those higher 1960s-era student-teacher ratios without harming the quality of education, saving tens of billions of dollars in the process. Layoffs wouldn't be necessary: The perennial double-digit turnover rate among teachers means that higher student-teacher ratios could be achieved within a few years via attrition.

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