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.
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.
Still, the growth in the number of teachers relative to enrollments does not account for all the extra government spending. Education reformers point to the number of school administrators. Nearly 5 million students attended Texas public schools in the 2010-2011 school year, up 19 percent from 2000-2001. The number of classroom teachers in the state's public schools rose 23 percent during the same period. But "administration" and "professional staff"-superintendents, principals, educational program leaders, and other school district bosses who typically hold advanced degrees and earn the biggest paychecks, along with accountants, computer programmers, audio-visual technicians, secretaries, and so forth-ballooned 38 percent to 39 percent in Texas over that same decade.
Texas now employs nearly as many full-time public-school employees who don't work in a classroom as those who do-326,812 compared to 333,090 in 2010.
The Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District provides a good case study of administrative bloat in public schools, says Cindy Mallette of The Red Apple Project, the education finance watchdog arm of the Texas chapter of Americans For Prosperity. The Cy-Fair district covers a huge swath of suburbia and exurbia northwest of Houston, and with 100,000-plus students is the third-largest in the state. The Texas Comptroller's office has called it one of the state's most efficient districts in terms of how it spends its money and the results it gets as measured by student achievement.
Yet even that "model" district is so top heavy that it requires 443 secretaries to support 1,329 administrators, managers, and non-teaching professionals. That total includes a superintendent whose base salary before retiring in June was $292,736, plus eight assistant and five associate superintendents, 272 principals and vice and associate principals, 182 counselors, 86 directors and assistant directors, 68 coordinators, 66 media specialists, 43 academic coaches, 73 education diagnosticians, and 16 psychologists.
"If conservative, fiscally responsible Texas has this problem, you can bet that less fiscally sound states are dealing with it too," Mallette says.
Cy-Fair school board member Bill Morris says flatly, "We have not spent money wisely." In late 2009 he won election over the board's former president by focusing on issues like Cy-Fair's $3 billion debt, its attempts to grab more tax money, and a large achievement gap between white and minority students. He also tapped into public outrage over a palatial $80 million football stadium/sports arena/special events complex opened in 2006. Since then the district has sold more construction bonds, but can't afford to staff or cool eight of the new schools that were to have been built with the bond money.
Cy-Fair's former superintendent and supportive board members had argued that the district needed more, not less tax money, and that the district budget had been cut to the bone. Morris says, "I don't buy that. And a lot people here and all around the country don't buy that."
-Dan Reed is a Texas journalist
Many conservatives define our public-school problems in terms of teachers unions, administrator organizations, colleges of education, and the rest of the educational establishment holding oligopolistic sway. In essence, they are looking to governmental change to fix what are, in large measure, the results of social and spiritual problems.
Do great educators and great schools make enormous differences in the lives of all kinds of students-from the most fortunate to the least-every period of every day? Of course they do. But many more kids than we may think have such holes and disorganization in their home lives that they find it too hard to concentrate and work hard enough so as to perform well enough academically.
Looking less individually and more communally (as in largely fatherless communities, of which we have vast numbers), it's clear that neighborhoods in which more than 80 percent or 90 percent of children are born outside of marriage are not particularly conducive places for even middling achievement. Peer pressure, for example, can be perverse anyplace, but tends to be especially poisonous-as in epithets about "acting white"-where strong families aren't buffers.
Or consider not just everyday ants-in-pants, but the specific matter of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a real affliction that affects not a large proportion of people but a large number of them. Many researchers say ADHD's fundamental causes are genetic, not anything social, such as AWOL parents. Let's accept that. But don't constant pressures and accompanying crises-the very kinds often entwined with family fragmentation-trigger and ignite genetic predispositions?
Whether it's ADHD as strictly defined, or some other state of mind with fewer if any explanatory pages in any psychiatric textbook, it's clear that sizable numbers of children have an extra hard time concentrating on their schoolwork because of unfilled holes in their lives. A 2010 Educational Testing Service report concluded that educational progress was unlikely apart from "increasing marriage rates and getting fathers back into the business of nurturing children."
Fixing education, like charity, begins in the home.
-Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, is the author of From Family Collapse to America's Decline