The Agenda

K-12 Downsizing

At Modeled Behavior, I noticed the following observation:

Government downsizing will not continue forever. I know many economists and commentators are focused on the contractionary nature of the budget deal. Don’t be. As I have said, there are basically two types of government workers: teachers and not-teachers. What we’ve seen over the last year is a sharp drop in State and Local employment and a big chunk of that is teachers. This will not continue forever. Local political forces are different than national ones and the push-back against little Johnny having 45 students in his class, or Maggie getting her AP class canceled will be strong and bipartisan.

This strikes me as almost exactly wrong. It is possible that downsizing has hit some upper bound for the federal workforce, in terms of headcount if not total compensation cost. The federal government relies heavily on private contractors, and it is possible that some of these functions should be more closely held. At the state and local level, one can make a plausible case that we need more rather than fewer police, and this is a domain where the cost of pension and health benefits is very important: lowering those costs might allow us to rely more on deterrence and prevention than incarceration to reduce the level of crime. But as for the teaching workforce, there is a long way to go before “little Johnny” will have 45 students in his class, as student-teacher ratios have gone from 22.3 to 15.6 over the last forty years. 

And as for Maggie getting her AP class canceled, the availability of AP classes in most K-12 school districts has been limited until recently, when programs like ACCESS in Alabama and the Florida Virtual School dramatically increased availability. But of course these programs are not commonly seen as an alternative to downsizing. Rather, distance education and blended learning strategies, that combine distance and traditional forms of instruction, allow us to combine technology and labor in ways that can reduce the need for teachers in any given district. 

It is nevertheless possible that there will be political resistance to this transition. On the other hand, I assume that there will be taxpayers who will resist tax increases, which is to say that a renewed expansion of the teaching workforce is far from inevitable for all of the reasons Chubb and Moe outline in their excellent book Liberating Learning.

One can imagine a scenario in which one or several cities emerge as hubs of teaching talent, with large numbers of small firms of specialist teachers contracting with blended schools around the country and around the world. These specialists might work with local teachers who focus on discipline, motivation, and identifying problem areas that can become the focus of intensive tutoring, which can in turn be provided through some combination of remote and local providers.


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