School districts have the tools they need to address alleged teacher shortages

[This piece has been published in Restoring America to highlight how the public education system can better reallocate its financial resources to serve students and taxpayers].

Special interest groups and some members of Congress say public schools across the country are suffering from crisis-level teacher shortages in the wake of COVID-19, and they’re asking taxpayers for more money. as a solution.

The reality, however, is a much different story: most schools have enough teachers, and the money that could be used to hire additional teachers or retain existing ones has been spent developing a huge administrative staff who ultimately added little value to the classroom.

The political will to increase the teaching staff long preceded the pandemic. A 2016 study claimed that by 2020, 300,000 new teachers would be needed each year. A Georgetown economist says such a shortage “can put an entire society at risk.”

Hyperbolic statements like these ignore the massive increases in teaching and non-teaching staff over the past few decades and assume that reducing class sizes positively affects educational performance.

Nationally, since 1950, while the number of students in public school districts has increased by 100%, the number of teachers has increased by 243%, and the number of administrators and other staff non-teaching increased by 709%, according to a study conducted by Benjamin Scafidi.

In public schools across America today, teachers make up only half of all education jobs. As Scafidi explains:

The disproportionate growth of “all other personnel” has presented the public education system with a very high opportunity cost. If the increase in “all other staff” alone had matched the growth in student enrollment between fiscal year 1992 and fiscal year 2015, … a conservative estimate reveals that US public schools would have saved nearly $35 billion in annual recurring savings. This represents $35 billion each year from 1992 to 2015, for a cumulative total of $805 billion over this period. One thing the public schools could have done with that recurring $35 billion: give each teacher a permanent raise of $11,000.

To be clear, raises should be merit-based and not simply handed out on the basis of incremental increases. But this data illustrates how poorly managed existing funds are and that there are options to attract qualified people into the K-12 class, as I, Lindsey Burke, noted in my testimony before the subcommittee. House Supply on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on May 25.

Public schools have chosen to fund an increase in non-teaching staff rather than directing ever-increasing taxpayer funding towards higher teacher salaries and revamped teacher compensation systems that better reward teachers who have a positive impact on student performance.

This graph from The Heritage Foundation shows the enormous growth of non-teaching positions in public schools from 1970 to 2012. Over those 43 years, non-teaching positions grew at a rate of 138%, compared to an increase of just 8 % of student enrollment.

Discussions around the alleged teacher shortage frequently include calls for reducing class sizes. But if we consider the countries with the best educational results (measured within the framework of standardized PISA or the Program for International Student Assessment, scores that measure students’ understanding of reading, mathematics and science), countries with larger classes scored higher on average than countries with smaller classes.

Additionally, the three highest-rated countries or territories — China, Singapore, and Hong Kong — have average class sizes of 38, 32.9, and 40, respectively. These numbers are all more than 50% higher than the average class size in the United States of 20.9.

This does not mean that larger class sizes lead to better academic results, but it does mean that class size is probably not an important factor in student performance. Class size probably plays less of a role in students’ academic outcomes than more fundamental factors, such as cultural emphasis on education, higher disciplinary and academic standards, and more hours spent studying.

A similar conclusion is also drawn when considering the United States in isolation. Every two years, fourth and eighth graders across the country participate in the National Education Progress Assessment to compare school performance across states. When comparing these test scores to the states’ average elementary class size, there is no statistically significant relationship between class size and NAEP scores.

Following the dramatic increase in school staff, especially non-teaching staff, from the mid-20th century to the present, and in the face of evidence that class size has little or no relationship to academic performance of students, why the continued call for more education employees?

The answer is that increasing teaching and non-teaching staff increases the power of teachers’ unions by increasing their membership. Among all U.S. employees, the unionization rate stood at 10.3% in 2021. However, among public school teachers and staff, this rate climbs to almost 70%.

This means that the increase in teaching and non-teaching staff translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-exempt dues paid each year to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. This further expands the political and collective bargaining power of teacher unions, while simultaneously deflecting the education conversation away from reforms (such as education choice) that are actually having a significant impact. These results, in turn, strengthen the ability of unions to block reforms that improve education.

If states and school districts want to attract and retain high-quality teachers, they have the tools — and the massive financial resources — to do so.

First, they should remove many of the barriers to entry into the classroom, namely teacher certification requirements, which have no connection to student achievement. Principals are more than qualified to make hiring decisions based on a teacher’s skills and experience.

Second, they should tackle pension reform, moving from defined-benefit schemes to defined-contribution schemes for school employees. This would not only save taxpayers money due to reduced taxpayer liability in defined contribution plans, but also provide portability of retirement accounts between states for teachers and their allow account balances to be transferred to other pension schemes 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 in the school building.

Finally, they should end the hiring spree for non-teaching staff.

While teachers’ unions and their political allies may not favor such an approach, it certainly offers greater benefits for teachers, taxpayers and, most importantly, our students.

This piece originally appeared in the

Daily signal
and is reproduced by kind permission of the Heritage Foundation.

Leave a Reply