Research & Commentary: Staffing Surge in Public Schools Has Been a ‘Costly Failure’

Published June 6, 2017

In 2012, Benjamin Scafidi published a report for EdChoice on the “staffing surge” in U.S. public schools. His May 2017 study, “Back to the Staffing Surge,” revisits the issue of increasing school staffs, which has been continuously growing since his first report.

In “Back to the Staffing Surge,” Scafidi shows that over the past 60 years, American public schools have added an excessive number of new staff members, specifically non-teachers, while student enrollment rates have increased at a much slower rate. From fiscal year (FY) 1950 to FY 2015, there was a 100 percent growth in students, a 243 percent increase in teachers, and a 709 percent increase in administrators and all other staff. The study notes the surge was correlated with increased accessibility until the mid-1990s, but since then, the costly increase in staff has not proven helpful, and it has come at the expense of more-effective learning resources.

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s 20th Edition of its Report Card on American Education provides further data on the “staffing surge.” Since 1970, the amount of non-teaching staff members in U.S. public schools has increased by 138 percent and the amount of teaching staff members has increased by 60 percent. During the same period, the number of students has increased by just 8 percent.

This staffing surge has not improved student performance. In 2015, the average score of 12th-grade students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessment was lower than the average score recorded in 1992. The 2015 NAEP math assessment scores were not significantly different from 2005 scores. The disconnect between increased spending and stagnant performance is due to a misapplication of resources, particularly in neglecting to hire qualified teachers.

According to Scafidi, from FY 1992 to FY 2014, average per-student spending increased by 27 percent, adjusted for inflation, while average inflation-adjusted teacher salaries decreased by 2 percent. As the student population increased by 19 percent, schools increased non-teaching staff members by 45 percent.

Instead of focusing on teacher qualifications and salaries, public schools have increased the amount of non-teaching staff members. Ze’ev Wurman, a U.S. Department of Education official under George W. Bush, told School Reform News, “U.S. spending seems to fund fewer qualified teachers, and fewer students per teacher. […] We focus on class size, while other [countries] focus on teacher qualifications, and can offer bigger salaries for fewer teachers with bigger classes.” American teachers have high literacy rates, but their numeracy levels are lower than teachers in other countries. In his first study on the staffing surge, Scafidi found that the majority of American adults would rather have larger classes with better teachers.

A better use of resources would be to hire qualified teachers who can help improve student achievement. The slow increase of student enrollment rates does not warrant the current rate of non-teacher staffing increases, which indicates that money could be used more effectively elsewhere. To attract individuals from the marketplace who would make qualified teachers, schools should allocate their resources to increase teacher salaries.

Additionally, schools could use the resources saved by hiring fewer non-teachers to benefit students by providing them education-choice programs, such as vouchers and education savings accounts (ESAs). The empirical evidence shows these programs improve student outcomes, help integrate schools, and improve civic values and practices – all at a lower cost than traditional schools alone.

The following documents contain more information on the staffing surge, ESAs, and school choice:

The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools
In this first report on the staffing surge from EdChoice, Ben Scafidi explains the dramatic increase in American public school staff. He looks at U.S. high school graduation rates and U.S. test scores to show that student achievement has not increased as staff sizes have grown. Scafidi promotes school choice, saying that public schools have only benefitted from increased school choice.

The Staffing Surge (‘Educratification’) in America’s Public Schools: ‘Educrats’ Now Outnumber Teachers in 25 States
In this article for AEIdeas, Mark J. Perry examines EdChoice’s first report on the staffing surge. Surprised by Scafidi’s report, Perry conducted his own research on the staffing increase. He found support for Scafidi’s results and that recent data show even higher increases in staffing.

Recalibrating Accountability: Education Savings Accounts as Vehicles of Choice and Innovation
Lindsey Burke and Jason Bedrick of The Heritage Foundation review the benefits of education savings accounts (ESAs). “The best way for policymakers in Texas and elsewhere to expand access to a high-quality education for all children is to provide all families with ESAs that give them the maximum possible freedom to choose the education providers that work best for their children,” wrote Burke and Bedrick.

Long-Run Effects of Free School Choice: College Attainment, Employment, Earnings, and Social Outcomes at Adulthood
Victor Lavy of the Cato Institute examines a school choice study conducted in Israel in the 1990s. His results show conclusively school choice programs often have positive long-term effects.

Boosting Graduation Rates in Texas through Education Savings Accounts
In this study for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Patrick Wolf shows Texas high school graduation rates would increase with the launch of Education Savings Accounts. Wolf says this school choice program “would generate 11,809 additional high school graduates in the Lone Star State by 2022.”

The Value of Smarter Teachers: International Evidence on Teacher Cognitive Skills and Student Performance
In this study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Eric A. Hanushek, Marc Piopiunik, and Simon Wiederhold examine the differences in teacher quality between countries, which “are strongly related to student performance.”

Universal ESAs Would Make West Virginia a National Leader in Education Choice–commentary-universal-esas-would-make-west-virginia-a-national-leader-in-education-choice?source=policybot
Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson explains the benefits education savings accounts would have in West Virginia. The accounts could “pay for textbooks, tutoring services, transportation costs, computers and other approved hardware, online courses, dual-enrollment courses, and educational therapies and services.”

The Dismal Productivity Trend for K–12 Public Schools and How to Improve It
In an article for the Cato Journal, Benjamin Scafidi discusses Richard Vedder’s studies on productivity in American public schools and proposed solutions.

More Money, Same Problems
In this AEI policy recommendation, Gerard Robinson and Benjamin Scafidi review the cost the staffing surge has had on taxpayers. They focus on Georgia and Massachusetts, which “are looking at ways to fix public schools beyond more bucks and bureaucracy.”

VA: School Staffing ‘Surge’ Costs Taxpayers Nearly $1 billion a Year
Kenric Ward of examines the staffing increase in Virginia in response to Scafidi’s 2012 study.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details how a vast body of research shows education-choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent of costs, an average of approximately $8,000 per student, are variable, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the one in Washington, DC, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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