Burke: The phantom teacher shortage in public schools

Pop quiz time. “Teacher shortages have gotten worse.” True or false?

False. And yet, that sentence was part of a recent Washington Post headline. And it’s far from uncommon.

In fact, public schools have been on a hiring spree for decades. It began with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and has continued to the present day, aided partly by a temporary federal COVID bonus payment of $190 billion.

In some school districts — mainly in the south and rural areas — and in some subjects (math, special education, foreign languages, chief among them), schools have trouble filling positions. But this problem is not acute. Nationwide, there were 5% more teachers in America’s public schools during the 2020-21 school year than during the 2017-18 school year.

Taking a longer view, in 1965, when Johnson launched his War on Poverty — a third of which, he said, “would be fought in the classrooms of America” — there were 1.7 million public school teachers for about 42 million students, equating to a student-teacher ratio of 25 to 1. By 2021, that figure had climbed to 3.2 million public school teachers educating about 55.5 million students, shrinking the student-teacher ratio nationally to just 15 to 1.

But teachers aren’t the only employees in public school districts. Indeed, today, teachers make up just half of all education jobs, a trend documented by professor Ben Scafidi at Kennesaw State University. Since 1950, public schools have added personnel at a rate nearly four times that of the rate of growth in student enrollment.

That increase in school personnel has been disproportionately non-teaching staff. The increase in new teacher hires was nearly two and a half times the increase in students, but incredibly, the number of non-teachers (that is, administrative and other staff) increased more than seven times that of student enrollment. From 1950 to 2019, while the number of students increased 100%, the number of teachers increased 243% and the number of administrators and all other staff increased 709%.

This staffing surge has been a deliberate decision made by the education establishment. And it’s had repercussions.

One has been relatively stagnant teacher salaries. This choice made by teacher unions — to prioritize hiring more staff (teaching and non-teaching staff) over higher salaries — equates to more dues-paying union members, which is, of course, good for the unions’ bottom line.

Here again, Scafidi points out that while inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending increased by 27% from 1992 to 2014, teacher salaries fell by 2%. Public schools chose to fund a non-teaching staffing surge rather than direct ever-increasing taxpayer-funded spending to higher teacher salaries.

Although teacher salaries have increased somewhat in real terms since that time (inflation-adjusted teacher salaries have risen from about $54,000 on average in 2002 to about $59,500 today), this relative stagnation isn’t due to a lack of spending. It is a function of poor management choices public school districts have made for decades.

Public school per-pupil spending has more than tripled in real terms since 1965. Inflation-adjusted spending grew from $4,412 per pupil during the 1965-66 school year to $14,789 per pupil by the 2019-20 school year. And that’s all before factoring in the $190 billion schools received for “COVID relief,” courtesy of federal taxpayers. Public schools, to borrow from Ronald Reagan, don’t have a revenue problem, they have a spending problem.

And, by extension, public schools don’t have a teacher shortage problem. They have a problem with the misallocation of abundant resources.

What can be done in those areas where schools have difficulty attracting and retaining teachers? States should make it easier for schools to hire teachers by eliminating useless teacher certification requirements — which has the added bonus of weakening the grip of colleges of education on the teacher pipeline — and instead insisting on subject matter expertise. There is no correlation between teacher certification and teacher quality. It is far better for districts to hire based on subject matter competency than on empirically useless paper credentials.

Making it easier for prospective teachers to enter the classroom and then more rigorously evaluating them once hired also paves the way for differentiating pay. Rather than paying teachers based on time in the classroom, schools should reward those excellent teachers who are successful at increasing student learning.

Finally, schools must end the habit of continuously increasing the number of non-teaching staff. Public education isn’t a jobs program, and teacher unions shouldn’t view classrooms as an extension of their political activities.

Reorient the focus to hiring and rewarding excellent teachers who can be assured they — and their students — spend their days in safe and orderly schools. And public education can begin a long-overdue process of academic improvement and renewal.

Lindsey M. Burke is the director of the Center for Education Policy and the Mark A. Kolokotrones Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation/InsideSources.com

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