The Corner

Obama’s Public Education Bailout, by the Numbers

This week, Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) introduced the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act, a $30 billion federal spending proposal to prevent teacher layoffs. It’s co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who argues that school districts can’t improve if they have to “jam more students in every class and lay off literacy and math specialists.”

Despite Reid’s rhetoric, there is no indication that schools are laying off math and reading teachers en masse. Moreover, dramatic increases in non-teaching staff positions over the years have done more to strain school budgets than any fiscal austerity measures undertaken by states.

Public-school staff hires have significantly outpaced student enrollment in recent decades. Since 1970, public-school staffs have increased by 83 percent. Over the same time period, student enrollment rose just 7 percent.

Meanwhile, the teacher “share” of staff positions has declined dramatically. In 1950, teachers constituted more than 70 percent of school staff. By 2006, that figure had declined to just 51 percent. Fifty years ago, there were 2.36 teachers for every non-teacher on the employment rolls of public school districts; today, the ratio is closer to one-to-one.

Nonetheless the White House is determined to ensure states keep their public-education staff rosters bloated. After all, more administrative bloat means more dues-paying union members.

The $30 billion in new spending proposed by Senator Menendez would come on top of massive increases in public education spending already enacted. Federal education spending exploded under George W. Bush, and the Obama administration has pushed it to unprecedented heights. In President Obama’s stimulus, for instance, the Department of Education received nearly $100 billion in new money. Last year, the administration passed a $10 billion public-education bailout. And now the president wants another $30 billion bailout. Yet another round of stimulus spending will not boost the economy any more than the previous ones did.

The states’ problem is not too little public-school spending. They spend over $10,000 per student already. The states’ problem is that they do not spend that money wisely. Instead of filtering more taxpayer dollars though Washington, states should enact reforms to use their existing funds more efficiently.

A forthcoming paper on teacher compensation by Heritage’s Jason Richwine and AEI’s Andrew Biggs finds that public educators receive total compensation above what they would otherwise earn in the private sector. While their cash wages are not especially high, public schools offer excessively generous non-cash benefits.

For example, public educators (both the teachers and the bureaucrats) can begin collecting pensions at age 55 in New York. Educators in California can also retire at 55, and collect pensions that average $4,250 a month — $51,000 a year.

Why should taxpayers pay for public-school employees to retire in their 50s? Rather than laying off teachers, states could cut administrative bureaucracy and bring their benefits packages in line with the private sector.

Education unions, of course, oppose such reforms. Many states would have to limit collective bargaining to enact them over union objections, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker did. The path of least resistance is for Washington to simply bail out the states again. That does not, however, make it good policy, or an effective economic stimulus.

Lindsey M. Burke is a senior policy analyst in domestic policy studies and James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics in the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis.