Ep 5: Back to the Staffing Surge with Ben Scafidi

May 8, 2017

“Our children would be much better off if only politicians would give public schools more money, so they can pay teachers more and reduce class sizes.”

If we asked for a show of hands for anyone who’s ever thought this, read it in the news or heard it from friends or neighbors, it’s a safe bet your hand would be in the air. It seems so simple, and so many of us have assumed it to be true our whole lives. But is it?

Our latest report—Back to the Staffing Surge—measures US public school employment growth versus student growth as well as teacher salary fluctuations and student outcomes over the past 65 years using publicly available data that state departments of education annually report to the U.S. Department of Education. The results were shocking. As the report’s author Dr. Ben Scafidi, professor and director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University,  said:

Given the massive increase in public school personnel—well over and beyond what was needed to accommodate student enrollment growth—given the data on stagnant student achievement in public schools over time, and given that students in recent years have characteristics that are slightly more favorable for student achievement, the productivity of American public schools has fallen rather dramatically over the past few decades. And, in retrospect, the staffing surge in American public schools has appeared to have been a costly failure.

What are the numbers exactly? Watch the video above for everything you need to know about American public school staffing trends, the Great Teacher Salary Stagnation and who’s responsible.

To learn more about this research or to download the full report, visit www.edchoice.org/StaffingSurge.

Catt: Ben, thanks for coming all the way from the Peach State to discuss your report.

Scafidi: Thanks for having me, Drew.

Catt: Ben, what would you say inspired this research?

Scafidi: It was really a bunch of conversations with my children’s teachers (they’re in public schools) and with other public school teacher friends of mine. They would complain about the increase in bureaucracy and the added staff outside the classroom, and they didn’t like it. That’s what led me to do this research on the staffing surge.

Catt: What exactly did you measure, and were there any limitations?

Scafidi: Yes, so like you said, I used data that state departments of education annually report to the US Department of Education, and I looked at the increase in students. Since 1950 to 2015, the number of students in American public schools basically doubled. The increase in staff was about four times as great as the increase in students. So who were those increase in staff?

I was able to use that data that is publicly available to separate public school employees into teachers and everybody else. So, teachers in one bucket, and in the other bucket: school administrators, district administrators, janitors, bus drivers, counselors, social workers, curriculum specialists, reading coaches, math coaches, etc. So what I found was that while public school employees increased four times as fast as the increase in students, teachers increased two and a half times as fast as the increase in students, which led to significant class size reductions.

People knew that: Class sizes have been smaller. But what I think people didn’t realize is the increase in administrators and all other staff was about seven times as large as the increase in students, which is rather dramatic.

Catt: So with all that in mind, how do you respond to potential critics who say the surge in staffing was necessary in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and maybe even ’90s because of desegregation, IDEA etc.?

Scafidi: Yes. If you listen to firsthand accounts of African Americans who were in public schools in this country in the ’50s and ’60s, they were separated from white students into separate schools, and in African American schools, they typically only had a teacher funded by the school district. Nothing else, no other funding.

So when you integrate schools, of course you need to hire more staff in the ’60s and ’70s. As late as 1970, as much as 80 percent of special needs students weren’t even allowed in public schools. So of course, when you allow special needs students to come into public schools, of course you need extra staff in the ’70s and ’80s. But what I show in the report is that even in the modern times, which I call post-1992, there was a modern staffing surge after all of that.

Catt: Wow. And so have public schools seen a return on this massive investment in teachers and especially administrators and other non-teaching staff? Are students doing any better?

Scafidi: The short answer is no. We’ve spent billions of dollars on the staffing surge, but there’s no measurable evidence that student outcomes are higher. In fact, on high school tests—on the National Assessment for Education Progress, the NAEP test—test scores have basically been flat during the modern staffing surge. Another piece of data is high school graduation rates. From 1970 until about the year 2000 during a massive staffing surge, high school graduation rates actually declined. So, there’s really no evidence that higher public school staffing has led to higher student outcomes. None.

Catt: If only there were some seminal piece of research that showed that putting more money into the system doesn’t really influence the outcomes.

Scafidi: Yes. I know you’re being funny. There’s actually a lot of research on that, so yeah that’s a common a finding.

Catt: So Ben, tell us about this Teacher Salary Stagnation.

Scafidi: In the modern staffing surge, I was able to look at 1992 to 2014 (2014 was the most recent data I could get for this). Public school students saw a 27 percent increase in real resources spent on their education, so adjusted for inflation, public schools were spending 27 percent more per student in 2014 relative to 1992. So you would think that educators on the front lines would have gotten a salary increase out of that. They actually didn’t. From 1992 to 2014, public school teacher salaries actually declined by 2 percent, adjusted for inflation. So adjusted for cost of living, teachers in 2014 had lower salaries than teachers in 1992.

Catt: Wow. That’s incredible. And not in a good way.

Scafidi: No, that’s terrible.

Catt: So when budgets do decrease, as they did during that whole Great Recession, how did staffing change in public schools?

Scafidi: Yes, the Great Recession was a historical anomaly. Big increases in unemployment, big decreases in property values, which meant less money for public schools. It was very well publicized that they reduced staff in the 2009–2012 period during the Great Recession. But you’ve got to put those staffing declines in context. The previous 60 years saw this massive staffing surge, and actually the staffing decline in public schools during the Great Recession was actually pretty modest.

The second thing that might be even more interesting: When revenues were growing in public schools, they had a preference for non-teaching staff, but when revenues were falling, they actually laid off teachers more than they laid off administrators and all other staff. So even when revenues were declining, public school systems still showed a preference for non-teaching staff.

Catt: Wow. It’s almost like they view the teachers as more expendable than the non-teaching staff.

Scafidi: That’s exactly how they made their staffing decisions, yes.

Catt: So then, who exactly is responsible for making those hiring, firing and even salary decisions?

Scafidi: That’s actually a loaded question because, at a simple level, you would think it’s the local school district. They are the ones who literally hire and fire teachers and make salary decisions. But there’s a big “but” there. You have three levels of government that influence this. You have the US Congress that gives money to local public schools. The US Congress passes laws that govern public schools. The US Department of Education writes rules to implement those laws. The US Department of Education gives guidance that really isn’t tied to any law to kind of bully school districts to do what they want. But then you have the same thing at the state level.

State legislatures give money to districts. State legislators pass laws that regulate local public schools. State departments/bureaucracies write guidance and policy to govern local public schools. And you have the same thing at the district level. You have a little bureaucracy at the central office. You have school boards, etc. So you really have a bunch of different hands in the pot. And when I speak publicly about the staffing surge–depending on where the educators are located—they always blame the other two levels of government. So local officials will blame, “Oh it’s the state’s fault. It’s the fed’s fault.” State officials say, “Well, it’s the locals bloating the payroll, and it’s federal regulations.” Federal officials say, “No it’s happening at the state and local level.” But truth be told, they’re all to blame.

Catt: So it’s: My people are doing the right job. It’s everyone else who’s messing up.

Scafidi: Exactly. That’s essentially the argument at all three levels of government.

Catt: So what would you say is the cost associated with the staffing surge? Were you able to calculate that in any meaningful way?

Scafidi: Yes. I was able to use data that state departments of education reported to feds on compensation for non-teaching staff in public schools. And I wanted to be cautious, so I wanted an underestimate. So my underestimate of the annual cost of non-teaching staff is $60,000 per employee. That includes salary, health benefits, retirement benefits, FICA taxes, unemployment insurance, recruiting costs, training costs.

Catt: That would be pretty low for a principal.

Scafidi: Yes absolutely. Absolutely. It’s higher for some other staff, but in the aggregate, that’s actually a low number. And what I found is that if from 1992 to 2015 (which is the most recent data I can get) the number of students in American public schools increased 20 percent. The number of all staff increased 37 percent, almost twice as much. Let’s let them keep the increase in teachers, which was 29 percent. So over that time, class sizes did decrease. But the increase in “all other staff” was 47 percent, so over twice the increase in students. Suppose the increase in “all other staff”—instead of being 47 percent—was only 20 percent to match the increase in students. What I found was that the savings to the public school system would have been about $35 billion a year. That’s annual recurring savings they would get year after year.

Catt: That is fascinating. So what could they do with all that money?

Scafidi: One thing you could do with $35 billion a year is give every teacher a permanent $11,100 a year raise, forever. I think teachers deserve that. But instead, we use that money to hire extra non-teaching staff. The second thing you could do with that money is you could have allowed states to give education savings accounts (ESAs) so that parents and students could choose private schools if they wanted to to. They could use that money for other educational services or save some of it for college. You could give over 4 million students $8,000/year education savings accounts. And so you could give parents more school choice opportunities.

Catt: I know a lot of teachers and families that would love either of those options.

Scafidi: Yeah. So instead of giving teachers raises, instead of giving parents and students more school choice opportunities, we hired more non-teaching staff in public schools for decades.

Catt: And why do you think this has been able to go on for so long?

Scafidi: I think part of it is people didn’t know it was happening, so that’s one reason to write the report, to let people know. Let parents know, teachers, policymakers know about this problem. The second is what I said earlier about the three levels of government. I think by having three levels and each level has its own preferences about, “We need more graduation coaches or we need more of this or we need more of that.” So they just layer it on and layer it on. And there’s your staffing surge.

Catt: So speaking of policymakers. How can they use these findings? What can they take away and use right now?

Scafidi: Data is power. So when they get jumped at a town hall meeting by teachers’ union people or school leaders, they could pull a little index card out of their pocket and say, “Hey, did you know that staffing in your district has increased by X compared to students, so you’ve been having this staffing surge.” Same thing at the state level. So I think state legislators can be cognizant of this and can maybe redirect the increases in public school resources to teachers, but also to school choice opportunities for families.

Catt: Fascinating. Is there any other research that might come out following this report?

Scafidi: As you well know, when you write a report for EdChoice, it gets reviewed extensively by professors, by national think tank people, but also by the research staff at EdChoice.

Catt: Nerds like me!

Scafidi: Yea, you are one of the reviewers, as you know. One of your colleagues Marty Lueken, who is an expert on the public sector pension crisis made a comment. And he said that the staffing surge is a double whammy to our public pension crisis. What he said was that instead of using that money to fully fund pensions promised to public sector employees—teachers and school employees—instead we were using it to hire extra staff. The double whammy is that you’re hiring extra staff into an unfunded pension system. So it’s kind of burning the candle at both ends. I an idea from his comment (another referee actually made that comment as well) And so, I’ve been talking to Marty about writing a paper together about how the staffing surge has exacerbated the public sector pension crisis in each state.

Catt: I’d be very interested in reading a rough draft of that.

Scafidi: I’m sure you will!

Catt: So other than that piece of research. What’s next for you?

Scafidi: I’m also writing a paper with your colleague Robert Enlow, who is the head of EdChoice, called The New Role of Government in Education. In 1955, Milton Friedman kicked off the modern school choice movement by writing a short chapter in an edited volume called the Role of Government in Education. What Robert Enlow and I want to do is update that 1955 piece for the modern day. What have we learned since 1955 about educational choice? What’s been the evolution of the public school system? What are some modern challenges facing American families? And let’s update Milton Friedman’s idea for the modern day.

Catt: Stay tuned, dear listeners. Ben, do you have anything else to add?

Scafidi: That’s all I have for today.