Chicago Public Schools now spends more than $29,000 per student, up from $17,800 in 2020. This is despite an 8.9% enrollment decline over the same time period. Far from alone, school districts around the country are sharply increasing spending regardless of falling enrollment. It is not only an economic debacle, but student learning is plummeting during the spending spree.
In the fall of 2020, more than 3 million students around the country did not show up to school — a half million of those were kindergartners whose parents opted to forgo online school for their non-reading 5-year-old children. By the spring of 2021, public school enrollment decline grew to 4 million students — a staggering 9% decrease. The exodus is not slowing as the 2022-2023 school year is underway.
The consistent trend of students who have left K-12 public schools over the past three school years is that they are not coming back. Parents and students are witnessing firsthand the benefits of alternative educational avenues, such as private schools, home schooling, microschools, learning pods and virtual schools. Enjoying their new learning experience, the only aspect they miss from K-12 public schools is that they are “free” thanks to the heavy taxes extracted from all.
Even with the sharp enrollment decline, staffing levels have remained level or even increased. In no industry other than government are staffing levels maintained in the face of significant and ongoing customer decline. Downsizing is inevitable. But in K-12 education, in large part by the powerful teacher unions who are teamed up with Democratic policymakers, claims of understaffing are continuous, despite dwindling student enrollment.
As a case in point, Seattle Public Schools employs more than 7,000 adults, which translates to one employee for every seven students. Despite the school system’s 7½% enrollment downturn, it has not paused plans to hire more employees. With only 47% of the district’s employees operating as classroom teachers, the excessive staffing drives up the cost to taxpayers, equating to $22,200 per student without factoring in the capital budget funding.
The Seattle school district is far from alone with reckless spending in the face of shrinking student enrollment and less-than-stellar results to show for it. In 2021, the Los Angeles Unified School District passed a $13.8 billion operating budget for the 2021-2022 school year, a 62% increase over the prior year’s budget. The increase skyrocketed the per-student spending to $24,000 — a more than $7,000 increase within three years.
The same reality is true for New York City Public Schools. The largest public school district in the country chalked up $30,772 in per-student spending in 2020, while enrollment dropped 9.5%.
The Seattle schools recently agreed to a new three-year contract with the Seattle Education Association adding approximately 20% to the budget for primarily more pay and increased staffing. Yet their superintendent, Brent Jones, admits the district doesn’t have the money for the $228 million agreed-upon increase.
So where does this money come from to close the funding gap — more accurately described as the planned overspending deficit? Taxpayers, of course. Schools operate an overstaffing model, ignoring enrollment downturns because it positions them well to claim the education system is underfunded, which pulls on the heartstrings of lawmakers and voters.
It’s hard to argue against the emotional ruse claiming that “if you care about kids and your community, you’ll vote in favor of fully funding public schools.” In this narrative, no regard is given to the poor management of personnel nor the bloated school district bureaucracy and staff rosters. Furthermore, there is no accountability for more money for consistently failing to improve student learning.
Nationally, as of 2020-2021, public school districts employ 135 adults for every 1,000 students, which is 7.4 adults per student — similar to the number in Seattle. In the early 1950s, the ratio was more than 17 students per adult. Since personnel costs are the largest school operational budget line item, it’s no surprise that there are annual demands for increased funding, even as more money is poured into the system.
Put another way, there are four times as many administrators in our K-12 public education system than in the 1950s, creating an excessive bureaucracy that drains roughly half of the funding before it even has the chance to reach the classroom.
Newark, New Jersey, provides a typical example of this inefficiency — the school administration absorbs more than $10,000 of the $20,000 spent per student. And when the funds finally reach the classroom level, there is little positive impact for students because much of the money is gobbled up by teacher salaries, robust benefits packages and lavish pensions — which teacher unions continue to champion as insufficient no matter how large.
The next time you hear that public schools are underfunded and understaffed, don’t fall for it. Washington state public schools average about $119,000 per year in salary and benefits for a nine-month work year compared with the statewide average compensation of roughly $56,600, which in most cases is a 12-month position.
And as we continue to pour more money and additional staff into the K-12 public education system, student learning performance over the past several decades has not improved. On the contrary, student outcomes have remained flat despite enormous funding and personnel expansion.
It’s time we stop the absurdity and redesign U.S. K-12 education to ensure that funding follows students, and parents are empowered to select the education avenue that will best serve their children. The resulting free market education landscape based on choice and competition would force schools to educate students more effectively and cost-efficiently or lose students and ultimately go out of business.
Taxpayers, parents and community members should demand higher returns for their $800 billion K-12 education investment. Our children and the future of our country deserve nothing less.
• Keri D. Ingraham is a fellow at Discovery Institute and director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.