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KANE: Fat Public School Salaries Cause Their Budget Woes, Not Vouchers

KANE: Fat Public School Salaries Cause Their Budget Woes, Not Vouchers
November 13
09:08 2012

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.

Conclusion

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.

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1 Comment

  1. William M Edelmann
    William M Edelmann November 13, 18:03

    The mission of public schools is delivery of educational services.

    The public school's mission statement shouldn't include but generally do anything about providing athletics, health dispensaries, food & meals, employment of anyone in community, transportation, etc. All of the latter are ancillary and are value-added to the mission of education but these are not at the core of the mission itself. That said, some of the latter is and always must be provided to ensure the comprehensive delivery of the primary mission and that is where an establishment of priorities must be made clear & decisive.

    This swelling of non-teaching staff levels and the addition of concepts like small-classroom {lower student-teacher ratios} to address disciplinary or 'honors' programs have been a problem for more than a couple decades. Adding administrators to oversee the rising specialization of programs, staff, personnel & regulatory compliance and you can see why staff growth exceeds student population growth or even reversing it by rising staff counts with declining enrollment in the systems.

    We have contended with these facts among the small, rural public schools in New Jersey where each town has its own K-8 'sending district' with its own administration, a separate HS district & administration or a regional HS district & administration and costs for non-educational outlays outpaced those of direct teaching by more than double.

    During the 1990s, good economic times, it was fashionable for parents to demand, easy for districts to provide additional educational & ancillary services, regardless of costs or economics. It is always easier to expand programming & concessions as tax receipts rise with new housing units or businesses {NJ schools are 'solely' funded on property tax receipts}. But when taxpayers cannot afford services, we have to choose cut-backs or shift burden to parties who directly benefit from athletics, arts & clubs, cafeteria, field trips &/or transportation, or petition those who impose the programs {State & Federal Departments of Education}. If those petitions are not responded in affirmative, programmatic & administrative cuts are then made.

    Unfortunately, large urban and statewide education systems do not have either the discipline or accountability at the local level, and so growth goes without review, remains unchecked, and grows unfettered into the weaker times as we now have.

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