Special-interest groups and some members of Congress claim public schools across the country are suffering from crisis-level teacher shortages in the wake of COVID-19, and they are demanding more money from taxpayers as a solution.
The reality, however, is a much different story: Most schools have enough teachers, and money that could be used to hire additional teachers or retain existing ones has been spent growing enormous administrative staffs that have ultimately added little value to the classroom.
The political drive to increase teaching staff long preceded the pandemic. A 2016 study claimed that by 2020, 300,000 new teachers would be needed annually. One Georgetown economist claims such a shortage “can put an entire society at risk.”
Hyperbolic statements like these fail to take into account the massive increases in both teaching and nonteaching staff over the past several decades and assume that reduced class size positively affects education performance.
Nationally, since 1950, while the number of students in public school districts increased 100%, the number of teachers increased 243% and the number of administrators and other nonteaching staff increased a whopping 709%, according to research conducted by Benjamin Scafidi.
In public schools across America today, teachers make up just half of all education jobs. As Scafidi explains:
The disproportionate growth in ‘all other staff’ has presented the public education system with a very large opportunity cost. If the increase in ‘all other staff’ alone had matched student enrollment growth between FY 1992 and FY 2015, … then a cautious estimate finds American public schools would have saved almost $35 billion in annual recurring savings. That is $35 billion every single year from 1992 to 2015, for a cumulative total of $805 billion over this time period. One thing public schools could have done with that recurring $35 billion: Give every teacher a permanent $11,000 raise.
To be clear, raises should be based on merit and not simply doled out based on step-in-lane increases. But these data illustrate just how poorly existing dollars are managed and that options exist for attracting qualified individuals into the K-12 classroom, as I, Lindsey Burke, noted in testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies on May 25.
Public schools have chosen to fund a nonteaching staffing surge rather than direct ever-increasing taxpayer funding to higher teacher salaries and revamped teacher compensation systems that better reward those teachers who have a positive impact on student performance.
Discussions around the alleged teacher shortage frequently include a call for reduced class size as well. But when looking at the countries with the highest academic performance (measured in standardized PISA, or Program for International Student Assessment, scores that measure students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy), countries with larger class sizes scored higher on average than countries with smaller class sizes.
Additionally, the top three highest scoring countries or territories—China, Singapore, and Hong Kong—have average class sizes of 38, 32.9, and 40, respectively. These numbers are all over 50% larger than the United States’ average class size of 20.9.
This does not mean that larger class sizes cause better academic performance, but it does mean that class size is not likely a significant factor in student performance. Class size likely plays less of a role in student academic outcomes than more fundamental factors, such as a cultural emphasis on education, stricter disciplinary and academic standards, and more hours spent studying.
A similar conclusion is also reached when looking at the U.S. in isolation. Every other year, fourth and eighth graders across the country participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress to compare academic performance among states. When comparing these test scores to the average elementary class size of states, there is no statistically significant relationship between class size and NAEP scores.
In the wake of dramatic increases in school staff, particularly nonteaching staff, from the mid-20th century to today, and in the face of evidence that class size has little if any relationship to student academic outcomes, why the continued call for more education employees?
The answer is that increases in both teaching and nonteaching staff increase the power of teachers unions by growing membership. Among all American wage and salary workers, the union membership rate stood at 10.3% in 2021. However, among public school teachers and staff, that rate soars to nearly 70%.
This means that increased teaching and nonteaching staff results in hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-exempt dues paid annually to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. This further expands teachers unions’ political and collective bargaining power, while simultaneously pivoting the conversation on education away from reforms (like education choice) that actually have a significant impact. These outcomes, in turn, enhance unions’ capacity to block reforms that improve education.
If states and school districts want to attract and retain high quality teachers, they have the tools—and considerable financial resources—at their disposal to do so.
First, they should remove many of the barriers to entering the classroom—namely, requirements for teacher certification—which have no relationship to student performance. Individual principals are more than qualified to make hiring decisions based on a teacher’s skill set and experience.
Second, they should tackle pension reform, switching from defined benefit to defined contribution plans for school employees. This would not only save taxpayers money because of the reduced taxpayer liability of defined contribution plans, it could provide retirement account portability across state lines for teachers and allow them to roll over account balances to other retirement plans if they change jobs.
Third, districts should abandon last-in, first-out policies in favor of staffing decisions based on teacher effectiveness and competence, not years spent in the school building.
Finally, they should end the nonteaching staff hiring spree.
While the teachers unions and their political allies might not favor such an approach, it certainly provides greater benefits to individual teachers, to the taxpayers, and most importantly, to our students.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal