Why Has Non-Teaching Staff Surged in Oregon Public Schools?

By James L. Huffman, JD

Associate editor of The Oregonian Susan Nielsen says that Governor Kitzhaber and the legislature face a parent rebellion if they don’t figure out how to reduce class sizes pronto. (“Big classes, fed-up families: As Kitzhaber plans for later, parents ask about now,” November 11). Nielsen is surely right that today’s parents won’t wait for the new top-down education bureaucracy while it studies how to educate tomorrow’s kids.

But Nielsen’s reference to “a tiny support staff” as part of the problem is puzzling in light of a recent report, entitled “The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools.” The report provides a state-by-state accounting of the growth in public school enrollment and employment since 1950. Some will be suspect of the report because it is published by the pro-school-choice Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. But the data all comes from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, so it warrants attention.

The bottom line for the nation is that, between 1950 and 2009, public school employment growth has outstripped public school enrollment growth by a factor of four. In other words, student enrollment has increased by 96 percent, and total public school staffing has increased by 386 percent. Between 1992 and 2009 the numbers look a little better, but personnel growth still out-stripped student growth 39 percent to 17 percent.

What are all of these new public school employees doing? A significant number of them are teachers. Between 1950 and 2009 student enrollment roughly doubled, while the number of teachers increased by 252 percent. Between 1992 and 2009 the growth rates were 17 percent for students and 32 percent for teachers. One would expect that with student-teacher ratios declining from 27.5 in 1950 to 15.4 in 2009, there would be a significant improvement in student achievement. But no―according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading scores have declined and math scores have remained level over the past two decades.

Even more revealing is the change in pupil-staff (as opposed to pupil-teacher) ratio. It was 19.3 in 1950 and 7.8 in 2009. While student enrollment increased 96 percent, non-teaching administrative and support staff increased 702 percent. The authors of the report estimate that if non-teaching personnel had grown at the same rate as student enrollment and the number of teachers had grown “only” 1.5 times as fast as enrollment, the nation’s public schools would have an additional $37.2 billion to spend each year. That’s enough to give every public school teacher in the nation an $11,700 raise, or to help local governments fund other public needs, or even to give taxpayers significant relief.

The picture in Oregon is both worse and worse. From 1992 to 2009 Oregon public school enrollment increased by 15 percent, while the number of teachers grew by 13 percent. Oregon was one of only three states with an uptick in the student-teacher ratio, which is to say a decrease in the number of teachers relative to students. But during that same period, administrators and other non-teaching staff grew by 47 percent—more than three times as fast as student growth. With slightly less enrollment growth than the national average, Oregon has managed to exceed the national average in non-teaching staff growth.

If class size really does make a difference, and 37 years of teaching persuade me that it does, Oregon has been putting its limited education resources in the wrong place. Our student-teacher ratio has risen while our student-administrator ratio has dramatically fallen. Of course, it varies from one school district to another; but Oregonians in general should be asking why those who run our public schools have seen fit to increase their own ranks at three times the rate of growth in student enrollment while allowing for a small decline in the number of teachers relative to students.

A cynic might say the question answers itself.

James L. Huffman, JD, is former dean and Erskine Wood Sr. Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School. He earned his Bachelor of Science at Montana State University and his Master of Arts at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tuffs University. He earned his JD from the University of Chicago Law School, and he is a Cascade Policy Institute Academic Advisor. Versions of this commentary appeared in The Oregonian and in the Northwest Free Press, which Professor Huffman cofounded.

Learn more at cascadepolicy.org.

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  • Oregon Engineer

    Mr Huffman, for government central planning bureaucracy increases. No argument. I do have a problem with some central figures in your article. In the fourth paragraph you point out that nationwide the number of teachers in schools has increased causing a significant decrease in student teacher ratios from 27 to one to 15 to one (rounding). And student performance should have improved but it has not; “according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading
    scores have declined and math scores have remained level over the past
    two decades.” Oregon has gone against that trend of decreasing student teacher ratios and yet follows the national trend in student performance. To me the differences in student ratios, lower nationally or slightly higher in Oregon do not make an impact on student performance. So how do you justify in your conclusion “If class size really does make a difference, and 37 years of teaching
    persuade me that it does, Oregon has been putting its limited education
    resources in the wrong place.” when you have cited statistics that show that student teacher ratio does not make a difference. It seems nationally that there is a tremendous amount of funding towards education wasted with no improvement in student performance. Here in Oregon we can make changes to non teaching staff and increase teaching staff but with questionable improvement in performance.

    • Teacher

      Student teacher ratio is not necessarily reflective of class size. A lot of teachers are in non-teaching positions. Our schools are staff heavy with overpaid do-nothings.

  • truthwillsetyoufree

    Hum, let see what some of those numbers crunch out like. 1959-300 students and 10 teachers gives an average of 30 per class. According to your stats students increased by 100% and teachers by 250% from 1950-2009. OK, that means in 2009-600 students and 25 teachers for a 24 per class average. Which isn’t really true since some of those teachers will be on prep and that will increase class size for the remaining teachers. What’s the big deal? If you can’t figure out why our society needs more help with school age children now compared to 1950? I suggest going back for another degree. As for the rest? Well, lets see. When I was in school we didn’t have ‘lunch ladies’. Why? Because every and I mean every kid brought their sack lunch. I never even had a hot school lunch until I moved to Oregon in the 70’s for HS. My elementary school was a principal and a secretary. Now days throw in a couple of counselors, a school nurse, a school psy, a reading specialist and so on and so forth. Same at Middle and High schools. Plus special ed and their assistants. You want to improve reading scores? Tell parents to start reading with their children when they are young. Get rid of counselors, kid has a problem-parents can come down to deal with it. Get rid of PE-parents can pay for a gym membership. Get rid of Music-parents can pay for private lessons. Get rid of electives at the high school-why do kids need CAD classes or Photography. Oh wait a minute, that school would suck.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    Seems like this study answers my previous comments about the tremendous overhead in our schools. Where is the money going? Not education obviously – public schools are about providing union jobs and that’s about it.

    The numbers:

    The study says P/T ratio is 15.9, lets pretend its 20 just to give the teachers unions every break possible.

    At an average per pupil spending of $10k, that’s $200k per classroom, with the teacher getting about $80k. Wow! That’s $120k to maintain a classroom!

    OK – Lets give the teachers another break, go only with per pupil expenditure of non special needs kids, now you are at $8k, $160 per classroom. Holy Cow! that leaves $80k to maintain a classroom after you pay the teacher? Wow! Where’s the money going?

    OK – OK – OK, lets use the teachers unions own numbers of $6k per student, that excludes all funds budget, so the building just magically appears, no maintenance to account for since we are leaving it out of the per pupil expenditure. $120k per classroom. Wow! We still have a 50% overhead, or %40k going God knows where. Can’t be the building or upkeep since we took care of that by excluding all funds from the per pupil figure.

    Wonder where that $40k is going?

    Can you say beer and donughts and lots and lots of special conferences, teacher “in service” days and all those other weird retreats where who in the world knows what happens?

    Public Schools – Our nations most effective jobs program!

  • mike

    I will tell you why. Cause teachers work so hard they need all the help they can get.

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