Scholarship critics ignoring the real culprits: more staff for fewer students and skyrocketing benefits
A number of school districts have argued that they will face financial hardships if students elect to participate in the Louisiana Scholarship Program and attend a private school. Although the scholarship program is saving the state approximately $18 million dollars due to the fact that the average scholarship is considerably less expensive than the per pupil funding costs at a public school, school districts have expressed concern because a loss of students means fewer dollars from the state.
Of course these school districts will also have fewer students to educate, so common sense dictates that there will be opportunities to cut costs. But even if one allows for the fact that schools have certain “built in” costs that cannot be reduced, are vouchers a chief cause of financial woe for school districts?
A new study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice indicates that schools have themselves to blame. “The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Growth in America’s Public Schools” analyzes the data and concludes that public school employment has far outpaced K-12 student enrollment. This trend is particularly stark in Louisiana, where the number of students declined by 13% between 1991 and 2009. Despite this decline in students, the number of total school personnel actually increased by 11%. The number of teachers increased by 9% and the number of non-teaching administrators increased by 13%.
“It’s astounding that billions of dollars are wasted on personnel in American public schools who do not produce educational results,” said Friedman Foundation president and CEO Robert Enlow. “We need to rethink how we spend our money including whether we would get better student outcomes if we redirected these funds to parents so they could send their child to the school of their choice.”
Public school employees enjoy relatively generous retirement and health care benefits, so it comes as no surprise that these costs are now putting a squeeze on school districts. For example, in 2001-02 the state spent $820 million on benefits for teachers and other employees. Ten years later, the benefit expenditures had increased to $1.7 billion, an increase of $108%. Viewed on a per-pupil basis, benefit costs rose from $1,132 to $2,563 per-pupil over the same time period, an increase of 126%. The enormous burden of these costs has real-world consequences, as schools are required to dedicate more of their resources to funding retirement, leaving less money for current needs.
Louisiana’s public schools put themselves in a precarious position by hiring more teachers and administrative personnel, even while the number of students declined. Generous pension and benefit plans have exacerbated this problem and will continue to burden our schools and taxpayers for years to come.
Complaints from school districts over “lost” voucher funding should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. The costs of excessive staffing and benefits far outweigh the modest adjustments that will need to be made because of students who elect to participate in the Louisiana Scholarship Program. If anything, facing competition from leaner private schools may encourage public schools to revisit their budgetary priorities and policymakers to address issues like pension reform in earnest.
Further, Louisiana taxpayers should continue to see increased savings from the Scholarship Program as a growing number of students choose this option. A voucher program in Milwaukee, for example, saved taxpayers $46.7 million in 2012 according to a University of Arkansas study.
Finally, policymakers should remember that our education system exists to support students, not administrators and employees. The modest challenges presented to school districts are outweighed by the fact that the Scholarship Program offers thousands of students new pathways to success. Along with savings to taxpayers that can be measured, it offers families an opportunity whose value cannot be captured on a balance sheet. It seems a small price to pay if school districts that spent recklessly for decades must now face the consequences of their actions.
Kevin Kane is the President of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a New Orleans-based conservative think tank. This piece originally appeared at the Pelican Post.