WILL Blog | Flanders: Administratored

Published on: March 22, 2016

Much like death and taxes, calls for increased spending on K-12 public education seem to be an inevitable part of life.  Take next month, for example, when more than 50 school districts in Wisconsin will be going to referenda on April 5 to increase property taxes for more local funding for public schools.   Proponents have argued that funding in recent years has not kept pace with the financial needs of the state’s 435 school districts.  But, a long-range view at K-12 funding in Wisconsin suggests a different conclusion.

The chart below shows the change in Wisconsin public school staffing and student enrollment since 1985.  As the chart shows, student enrollment has mostly leveled off since the mid-1980s. What has not declined, however, is the size of the K-12 workforce. To the contrary, the growth of the K-12 workforce has exploded.  Since 1985, the number of non-teaching staff in Wisconsin schools has increased by more than 50%.  In 1985, there was one staff member for every 24.5 students.  Today, there is one staff member for every 19.65 students.

2016-3-22 blog graph 1   Sources:  National Digest of Education Statistics: 2015, 2007, 2002, 1997, 1992, & 1987 editions.

Such growth in staffing might be sensible if this increased bureaucracy was having some effect on student achievement, but achievement, as measured by ACT test scores, has been largely flat in Wisconsin since 1997.  And, while it might be possible to argue that there has been some benefit from additional teachers (even if not reflected in test scores), the explosion in non-teaching staff seems far more questionable.

The growth in staffing compared to enrollment has been fueled by major increases in per student spending, adjusted for inflation.  In the chart below, the red line shows Wisconsin per pupil K-12 spending at its 1985 level if adjusted for inflation.  The black line shows the actual growth of per pupil spending.  When compared to each other, one can conclude that Wisconsin spent nearly $3,000 more per student in 2013 than in 1985 – even when adjusted for inflation.

2016-3-22 blog graph 2   

Wisconsin, not surprisingly, is representative of the country.  In a blog post. Dr. Matthew Ladner, the senior advisor of policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, showed growth in public school staffing across the country with the much smaller growth in national public school student enrollment, over the last several decades.

So what’s the bottom line?

As calls for increases in K-12 spending ramp up – in April referendum, the political season, and next year during the state budget debate – policymakers should ensure that public money is being spent wisely, on students with a focus on outcomes and performance, rather than simply accelerating the seemingly inexorable growth of school bureaucracy.