The Agenda

The Underutilization of Public School Staff

Matt Yglesias has poked fun at me for quoting Rick Hess all the time.

You have basically a mirror-image situation on education policy, where something like 90 percent of non-budgetary conservative commentary on K-12 education is either by Rick Hess or consists of Reihan Salam quoting Rick Hess. Most conservatives just content themselves with the idea that school spending is wasteful, that teacher’s unions are at fault for this, and that Rick Hess has a book called Stretching the School Dollar. There’s very vigorous debate ongoing about how K-12 money should be spent, but the overwhelming majority of it occurs between warring left-of-center factions since thinking about poor kids and teachers and such is the kind of thing that mainly appeals to liberals.

I’m happy to discuss the book in greater detail — it’s very good — but I tend to think that Matt is viewing this through the wrong less. The education policy world is monolithically liberal, or rather people working in education policy tend to identify as left-of-center. So left-right isn’t the real axis of conflict. If it were, you’d have consensus, with a few marginal conservative cranks carping from the outside.

Moreover, I don’t think that “warring left-of-center factions” is the right mental model for educational policy debates, as we’re not dealing with a series of parallel Weltanschauung parties, e.g., a Zionist social democratic faction that loves small student-teacher ratios vs. black nationalist Maoists that prefer distance learning. There are many discrete issues that create different alignments, e.g., some Third Way school reformers favor vouchers and ESAs and for-profit providers as well as public charters, while some of the most enthusiastic charter advocates see private school vouchers as dangerous. Some people place a higher priority on desegregation, summer learning loss, etc. This is a specialized domain in which there is a great deal of disagreement among experts, partly because the social basis of expertise is fairly diverse, e.g., you have people from the for-profit world, people affiliated with ed schools attached to large private research universities as well as large public research universities, teachers and administrators, etc.

Those of us on the right with an interest in education reform will inevitably find ourselves rooting for people who would under most circumstances detest our politics. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the new deputy superintendent in New York city, is a brilliant guy, and I see him as an advocate of constructive structural reforms. He is also steeped in a lot of interesting left-of-center education thinking drawn from the developing world, and I find it unimaginable that we’d agree on much politically. There are still worlds in which a public policy conversation is more than a conservative conversation or a progressive conversation. One of Hess’s virtues is that he’s not generally that interested in conservative nostrums. He’s engaged in a lot of interesting, ground-level debates, and I like the way he thinks about a wide range of questions.

All that said, now that Rick has returned from vacation, I plan to shamelessly quote him at great length. Or rather I’m going to quote Rick describing a presentation by Karen Hawley Miles at a recent conference in Austin, Texas sponsored by the new Improving Productivity in Public Education:

Hawley Miles pointed out that “real” (e.g. inflation-adjusted) spending increased from $3,800 to $8,700 between 1970 to 2005, but that 80% of those dollars went into new staff positions and increased benefits. If teachers are frustrated that vast new spending in recent decades didn’t boost salaries, they need to recognize that this is because those dollars have gone into hiring new staff and into plumping benefits–and not because states and districts have failed to fund schools. Hawley Miles also pointed out that special education spending has risen from 4% to 21% of spending over that period, while general education spending has fallen from 80% to 55%.

Hawley Miles continued by highlighting the gap between top-line student-teacher ratios and the ratios seen across discplines:

Hawley Miles walked through district analyses pointing out one district where average class size for core 9th grade classes is 27, while it was 18 for 12th grade electives. She flagged a district where a student-teacher ratio of 16:1 is yielding an average class size of 29:1, because of how staff are utilized. In another district, she noted that self-contained special education costs $42,600 per pupil while special education in general classrooms costs $19,900 per pupil. Yet, we’ve bizarrely opted to put in place policies that discourage or even prohibit educators from taking into account the enormous cost of self-contained instruction when deciding how to assign children and allocate scarce dollars.

This is fascinating, and it’s a reminder of why the Hess-Meeks concept of educational spending accounts is so attractive: by making the cost of various instructional options more transparent, we encourage specialization that will yield more cost-effective approaches to educating young people. Some will object: “You right-wingers and your consumer-directed plans! I scoff at you!” I’ll take that.

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