Underfunded and Understaffed: The Recurring Themes of K-12 Public Education – Washington Times | Team Cansler


Chicago public schools are now spending more than $29,000 per student, up from $17,800 in 2020, despite an 8.9% drop in enrollment over the same period. Far from school districts across the country increasing spending drastically despite declining enrollment. Not only is it an economic debacle, but student learning plummets during the spending spree.

In the fall of 2020, more than 3 million students across the country did not show up for school – half a million of whom were kindergarteners whose parents chose to forego online school for their non-reading 5-year-old children. By the spring of 2021, public school enrollment had grown to 4 million students — a staggering 9% drop. The exodus is not slowing down as the 2022-2023 school year is underway.

The consistent trend for students who have left K-12 public schools in the last three school years is that they are not coming back. Parents and students are experiencing first-hand the benefits of alternative educational pathways such as private schools, home schooling, micro schools, learning pods and virtual schools. As they enjoy their new learning experience, the only thing they miss about K-12 public schools is that they’re “free” thanks to the heavy taxes levied on everyone.

Despite the sharp drop in enrollment, the number of staff has remained the same or even increased. No industry other than government is maintaining staff levels in the face of significant and ongoing customer declines. Downsizing is inevitable. But in K-12 education, in large part from the powerful teachers’ unions aligned with Democratic policymakers, claims of understaffing continue to surface despite declining student numbers.

For example, Seattle Public Schools employ more than 7,000 adults, which equates to one staffer for every seven students. Despite the 7½% drop in enrollment in the school system, it has not abandoned plans to hire more staff. With only 47% of the district’s staff serving as classroom teachers, overstaffing drives up the cost to taxpayers, which totals $22,200 per student, not counting capital budget funding.

The Seattle School District is far from alone in reckless spending in the face of declining student numbers and less than stellar results. In 2021, the Los Angeles Unified School District approved an operating budget of $13.8 billion for the 2021-2022 school year, a 62% increase over the prior year’s budget. The surge sent spending per student skyrocketing to $24,000 — an increase of more than $7,000 in three years.

The same reality applies to the public schools in New York City. The nation’s largest public school district saw spending per student of $30,772 in 2020 while enrollment fell 9.5%.

Seattle schools recently agreed to a new three-year deal with the Seattle Education Association that increases the budget by about 20%, mostly for higher salaries and more staff. But its superintendent, Brent Jones, admits the district doesn’t have the money for the agreed $228 million increase.

So where is this money coming from to close the funding gap — more specifically, the planned overspending deficit? Taxpayers of course. Schools operate an overstaffing model, ignoring the drop in enrollments because it puts them in a good position to claim the education system is underfunded, something lawmakers and voters are drawn to.

It’s hard to argue against the emotional ruse that “if you care about children and your community, you will vote to fully fund public schools.” In this narrative, no attention is paid to poor human resources management, nor to bloated school district bureaucracy and staffing lists. Additionally, there is no accountability for more money when it consistently fails to improve student learning.

Nationwide, public school districts employed 135 adults per 1,000 students in 2020-2021, or 7.4 adults per student — similar to Seattle. In the early 1950s the ratio was more than 17 students per adult. With staff costs being the school’s largest budget item, it is not surprising that more funds are requested each year even as more money is poured into the system.

Put another way, our K-12 public education system has four times as many administrators as there were in the 1950s, creating an excessive bureaucracy that drains about half of resources before they even have a chance to reach the classroom.

Newark, New Jersey is a case in point for this inefficiency — school administrators absorb more than $10,000 of the $20,000 spent per student. And when funds eventually reach classroom levels, there is little positive impact for students, with much of the money gobbled up by teachers’ salaries, robust benefits packages and lavish pensions – which teacher unions continue to say are inadequate, no matter the size.

Next time you hear about public schools being underfunded and understaffed, don’t fall for it. Washington state public schools average about $119,000 in salaries and benefits per year for a nine-month work year, compared to the statewide median of about $56,600, which is the equivalent of a 12-month job in most cases.

And while we continue to pour more money and additional staff into the K-12 public education system, student achievement has not improved over the past several decades. On the contrary, the study results have stagnated despite enormous financial and personnel expansion.

It’s time to end the absurdity and redesign US K-12 education to ensure funding follows the student and empowers parents to choose the educational path that best suits their children best serves. The resulting free-market educational landscape, based on choice and competition, would force schools to educate students more effectively and cost-effectively, or lose students and ultimately go out of business.

Taxpayers, parents and community members should be demanding greater returns on their $800 billion investment in K-12 education. Our children and the future of our country deserve nothing less.

• Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow at the Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.

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