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Why Teachers Only Get A Fifth Of The Money Taxpayers Spend On Their Schools


In response to the lack of desired spending on public schools, teachers have periodically protested across the country. The most recent example of this was in Oklahoma, where teachers went on strike even after the state legislature passed a bill to raise taxes and teacher’s salaries.

This fuels another problem of high teacher turnover, fewer new applicants, and larger class sizes. If all a prospective teacher has to look forward to are larger classes and lower pay, he or she might do better finding a different career.

This problem is nothing new, nor specific to Oklahoma. All American public school districts, even in the most affluent communities, struggle with adequate funding, and all eagerly look for ways to have their state and local governments raise money. All the same, nearly all district leaders will claim it is impossible to lower costs in order to pay teachers more or hire more teachers.

But why? Why should it cost close to $20,000 a year to teach a student in New York? Why should it even cost more than $7,000, as it does in miserly Oklahoma? If a teacher makes less than $40,000 a year, and her class of 30 students brings in close to $240,000 a year in public funding, more than four-fifths of education spending does not go to the teacher’s salary. Where does that money go?

The All-Purpose Public School

It goes towards many things that most people, and most educational reformers, do not think much about. So many clamor about teacher pay as though schools were simply large buildings primarily filled with teachers, students, and a handful of administrators and counselors. In reality, schools are large, sophisticated organizations encompassing a multitude of different functions.

Besides actually educating students, schools also serve as athletic complexes, town halls, soup kitchens, hospices, rehabilitation centers, reformatories, convention centers, and many other things. While some people think learning only requires a lesson on reading or math, for the public school it also includes emotional wellness, physical fitness, advisory lessons on respecting others and staying away from narcotics, and a host of special interests and hobbies.

While some think of a school campus as a place for a class to gather and do schoolwork, public schools are also places that have athletic facilities, updated Internet networks, performance centers, and full-time security staff with cameras in every hall. While some think of that eccentric English teacher telling his students how to diagram sentences and enjoy Shakespeare, the public school employs the reading specialist, the special education contact, the counselor, the assistant principal, and various central office bureaucrats to coordinate and intervene on behalf of students.

This says nothing about the students who attend a typical school. Their needs may range from upper-level college instruction and career training all the way to regular assistance using the bathroom and swallowing solid food. A few students do fine organizing their time and practice self-control, but the majority needs a great deal of structure, support, and individual attention. Students who pose a serious danger to others necessitate a small army of individuals who handle discipline, detention, and documentation for innumerable infractions against the student code of conduct.

Furthermore, all these different students learn in different ways, resulting in a vast array of teaching methods. Some learn better with direct instruction, others in groups, others through observing, others through doing, and still others learn some completely different way.

With so many students constantly feeling bored and restless—which must have something to do with the way the teacher teaches and not the fact of their youth and the smartphone in their pockets—districts train and retrain teachers on the newest method to “engage” students while maintaining rigorous academics. Whether these new methods work is always a matter for debate, but few will argue that yearly training inevitably costs vast sums of money.

With every new need, new constituency, and new crisis, schools continue to grow. Like the state growing ever larger, the school does the same. At least supporters of limiting the size and role of government can invoke the wisdom of the American Constitution and the founding fathers; supporters of doing the same for schools lack analogous authorities. Rather, they only look like heartless Saturns scarfing down the futures of innocent children when they dare to object to essential adolescent amenities like multi-million-dollar football stadiums.

Slimming Down Public Schools

Lacking any defining principle, public schools have tried to become all things to all people. This model leaves the door wide open for alternative schools that focus their mission. Instead of winning every extracurricular event, maximizing test scores (or, more accurately, minimizing failures), and being in compliance with every state standard, charter and private schools offer a refuge from all that.

Overly smug school choice proponents tend to miss this critical point: these alternatives benefit enormously from the fact that they do not have to take in every child and provide every service. Schooling is indeed much cheaper when campus leaders dispense with the bureaucratic accretions that bloat the average public school. If public school alternatives similarly took in all students, not just motivated ones, and sought to provide every possible learning program, not just additional standardized test review (i.e., more “drill and kill” with practice questions), they would easily lose all means of competing with public schools in the neighborhood.

This does not mean school choice is unfeasible or bad. On the contrary, the very possibility of losing students to charter schools has forced education leaders to rethink public school and stop taking their good students for granted. One can see this in the Dallas Independent School District, which has implemented new academies and International Baccalaureate programs instead of pampering their athletes with new equipment or giving each of their students new iPads. Indeed, nothing spurs innovation and eliminates waste like competition, education being no exception to this rule.

Nevertheless, competition has its limits when society ties public school teachers’ hands. Somehow, someway, they have to answer to every social ill—which is a big reason most social reformers see education as the key to enacting their (usually progressive) agenda. Until people are ready to accept a school that simply teaches its students and nothing more, they will have the multiplex that continues to expand.

To reverse this trend would mean that schools must outsource, downsize, or eliminate certain responsibilities that require so much staffing and infrastructure, specifically athletic programs, special education programs, and disciplinary programs. For the first item on the list, Amanda Ripley clearly and thoroughly lays out the case against high school sports and highlights its heavy toll on school budgets, particularly in states like Texas. In Europe, clubs host and organize athletic programs, not schools. It is not unreasonable to expect American schools (and colleges) to join the rest of the developed world and follow this model.

Addressing Special Ed and Discipline Requires Lawmakers

Reforming special education and disciplinary programs, however, would be far more complex and require a change in laws. As with American public schools in general, the problem with these programs begins with a lack of definition. Special education covers a vast range of supports for all kinds of disabilities: physical, mental, and emotional.

A student who struggles with focusing on algebra can qualify for special education services, along with the nonverbal autistic student needing constant assistance. Public schools do what they can to minimize the costs of these services (a bad thing for the students truly needing them), but they will still be expensive, even with assistance from the federal government.

A solution would again start with legislators setting boundaries for their schools, clearly defining what educators can and cannot do to correct misbehaving children.

To truly eliminate these costs, federal and state legislators will need to determine what special education really means. If it means providing hospice care to a severely disabled young person, then they should probably classify it as such and separate it from the educational realm. If it means providing therapy for the emotionally disturbed, again, they may want to reclassify it and outsource treatment to organizations outside the school.

If it means students who need a little more time for reading a text because they are dyslexic or need a pass for the elevator because of back problems, then they can simply accommodate such students and do away with the many offices, committees, experts, and aides to make these simple decisions. To be fair, this suggested remedy simplifies a very complicated and emotionally fraught issue, but if cutting the costs and focusing the role of school is the goal—and it should be—then special education must be addressed.

Reforming discipline programs presents challenges as well, and for a similar reason as special education: what is law and what is practice become entangled and confused. A solution would again start with legislators setting boundaries for their schools, clearly defining what educators can and cannot do to correct misbehaving children.

This then brings up two contentious issues: compulsory schooling and student remediation. Administrators and support staff spend much time chasing truant students, and teachers write up referral after referral for unmotivated, misbehaving students whom they must teach alongside well-behaved students since the powers that be have decided a separate remediation class would deny these reluctant kids an opportunity to learn equally with the others. If the approach public schools currently take does little good for these types of students, and effectively harms the other students, maybe people should consider different, less costly, solutions than disciplinary campuses and truancy courts.

A Level Educational Playing Field for School Choice

Oscar Wilde famously said that “to define is to limit.” In education, this is especially true. For too long, schools have suffered from a lack of definition, leading to unlimited spending. If communities and their leaders can come together and resolve some of these ambiguities, then they can begin to reel in expenses and even start paying teachers competitively.

Moreover, if public schools become lighter and more nimble in their operations, then the prospect of school choice and fair competition becomes more realistic. Otherwise, charter and private schools will exist on the margins, picking off disgruntled students and teachers, while public school districts slowly go bankrupt trying not to lose these students as they hope to satisfy all their other obligations.