Cato: The reality of money and jobs in public education

If you’re going to argue the reduction of public education funding or the reduction of the number of teachers/assistants/administrators will directly result in lower student performance, you need to show the increase in funding and positions within the system improved student performance in the first place.

Andrew Coulson at the Cato Institute reviewed the 2009 version of the Digest of Education Statistics (PDF, 7 MB or Web version), with a tremendous amount of data that I just do not have time to analyze. I’m certain the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics spends lots of resources putting these reports together, and since I represent the conservative point of view, I’m going with Coulson’s overview concerning the increased funding and increased number of positions as compared to student performance.

You’re welcome to add links to articles from the progressive/liberal perspective in the comments section if those articles pull data from the same Department of Education report.

His argument is rather simple, we’re throwing a lot of resources at education performance initiatives and the return on investment is not present at all.

Just a taste from Coulson, please go read the full post.

Teachers unions, the Obama administration, and most Democrats in Congress want to spend another $23 billion that we don’t have to shore up public school employment. If we don’t go along, they tell us, it’ll be a “catastrophe” for American education. With fewer teachers our kids will supposedly learn less, further crippling our already wounded economy.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Over the past forty years, public school employment has risen 10 times faster than enrollment (see chart). There are only 9 percent more students today, but nearly twice as many public school employees. To prove that rolling back this relentless hiring spree by a few years would hurt student achievement, you’d have to show that all those new employees raised achievement in the first place. That would be hard to do… because it never happened.

Near the end of his post…

Losing a job is a terrible experience, but the school hiring binge of the past four decades has been entirely disconnected from enrollment levels and unaccompanied by educational improvement. Foolish public officials and self-serving, empire building teachers’ unions have created millions of unproductive jobs that were never justified in the first place and that have been a terrible drain on the U.S. economy.

As shown, his first chart pulls information from Table 33, 34 and 80 and extrapolates the data into one chart, something I’ve done before myself after reviewing government data.

As an example, Table 33 shows enrollment in elementary and secondary schools went from 45.6 million in 1970 to 49.3 million in 2007, an 8.1 percent increase. During this time, total instructional staff (supervisors, principals, teachers…) when from 2.3 million to 4.2 million – an 82.6 percent increase. These are literally back of the napkin figures, so Coulson’s figures certainly had more thought and research involved.

The featured image for this post is the front of the Robert F. Kennedy Visual and Performance Arts High School in Los Angeles. This is one of the community schools recently completed at a total cost of more than $575 million. It’s been a hot topic in the alternate media here, here, here and here.


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Steve McGough

Steve's a part-time conservative blogger. Steve grew up in Connecticut and has lived in Washington, D.C. and the Bahamas. He resides in Connecticut, where he’s comfortable six months of the year.


  1. scottm on August 24, 2010 at 5:48 am

    I remember Dimsdale saying he was a teacher, I suppose that's why he's not commenting on this.  Come on Dims, drink some more kool-aid…..Just kidding…sort of.

    • Dimsdale on August 24, 2010 at 6:01 pm

      See below.   And I am grossly underpaid compared to many of my contemporaries.


      The Kool Aid is being drunk at the level of K-12.  By the time I get them, it is far too late.  It is no wonder that home schooled students are excelling.

  2. Lynn on August 24, 2010 at 6:30 am

    It's not the quantity of teachers it's the quality of teachers that makes kids learn more. I really don't remember how the teachers union allowed this, but in Portland CT, in 1977 the BOE voted to pay first year teachers more than long term teachers. It was a wonderful success! I was elected to the Board in 1979, and reaped the rewards of this action and so did my children. The teachers were excited and innovative teachers and they stayed loyal to Portland, remember as they went up the ladder their pay stabilized instead of mounting in the normal way. We had 2 teachers of the year and one had access to NASA, he was in demand by every student. It was a small school system and almost every student got the good teachers. I doubt if this could happen anymore, but it was thrilling to see. I would love to see better evaluations be done by administrators so the incompetent teachers would have to go.

  3. Lynn on August 24, 2010 at 6:37 am

    Can't stop now. I watched the Cavuto program and as you mentioned that CA High School was the feature. The cost of the buildings is included in the cost of educating children, so that parents can feel they are doing the best for their children. When I saw the beautiful tile mural that went around the entire interior of my granddaughter's school, I was sickened. Do parents truly think this grand building makes their children learn more?

  4. sammy22 on August 24, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Working w/ children away from the school setting, I am appalled at the illiteracy of many of them. More money does not seem to be the answer.

    • Dimsdale on August 24, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      I work with young adults in the college setting, and the level of illiteracy, misspellings, ignorance of grammar and more are frightening, almost criminal.  To be sure, there are some standouts and some not-so-standouts, but the overall picture I am getting belies any correlation between money spent and results in public schools.

    • chris-os on August 25, 2010 at 2:27 am

      Teacher, teachers, teachers…they are not the problem! They are NOT overpaid. It is the layers of administration (with the 6 figure salaries). The superintendents, most of whom make more than the governor and who flit from town to town-I believe I read that the average stay in 1 town is 2 years-for more money.

      Some towns now have schools for grades 6-8-why?? Another building to maintain, more administrators to pay.

      It is the Boards of Ed who refuse to give up their power (regionalization of districts would save boatloads of money).

      Always the cry for a new school-when a school is 30 years old, the BOE cries "OMG we need a NEW school"! (So what, people LIVE in houses over a hundred years old.)

      And Dims, your stand-outs or not so stand-outs can be attributed to parents-every one of their teachers could not have been bad-my husband sat at many "parents nights" when only 1 or 2 parents came to discuss their child's grades. Can't do anything with kids who don't pay attention in class and do not do their assignments-if the parents don't care, why should they?

    • Dimsdale on August 25, 2010 at 5:40 am

      I could not agree with you more.


      The most appalling thing of all: colleges have to have remedial schools within the colleges to get these students up to speed, i.e. the College of General Studies at BU (formerly the College of Basic Studies or CBS, derisively called "coloring book school" by other students).  It is proof positive that many students aren't getting educated prior to entering college.

    • scottm on August 25, 2010 at 6:42 am

      This generation of students rarely spell out an entire word due to texting etc. it's all btw and lol and brb.  OMG!! no wonder they can't spell.

    • scottm on August 25, 2010 at 4:20 pm

      It's easier for the right to throw teachers under the bus because they are part of a union and don't teach the book of Glenn Beck.

  5. Lynn on August 25, 2010 at 3:45 am

    Chris-OS, I agree with everything you wrote. it is amazing, but the more people converse the more they find common ground.


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