Arnold Kling  

Mayor Bloomberg Misses the Problem

A Theory of Investment Banking... A True Story of Efficient Regu...

He writes,

we have built too many bureaucracies that lack clear lines of accountability, which means that mediocrity and failure are tolerated, and excellence goes unrewarded. We recruit a disproportionate share of teachers from among the bottom third of their college classes. Then we give them lifetime tenure after three years, and we reward them based on longevity, not performance. We fail to help struggling students in the early years, when costs are lower, and then, in the upper grades, we pay for expensive remediation programs which have very limited success. And we allow vast funding inequalities to exist between school districts, with poor students, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic, paying the price.

Here is my reaction to a story in our local suburban newspaper (I decided to exercise my inner Don Boudreaux and write a letter to the editor--it would be printed next week if they accept it):

Your lead story on the school budget (December 13) contained some very interesting facts, which in turn raise some questions.

For example, if you divide school enrollment of 137,798 by number of employees, 21,840, you get a ratio of one employee for every 6.3 students. My daughters have been in classes that are 4 or 5 times that big. Apparently, the vast majority of school system employees do not teach in a classroom.

The story said that 89 percent of the $1.98 billion budget goes to employee compensation. Dividing this by the number of employees gives average compensation of $80,686 per employee. If the non-teaching staff are bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors, then they are very well paid!

If the County should ever elect an official who represents taxpayers and parents, rather than being teacher's union-approved, that official might want to ask questions about this. Start by asking what all of the non-teaching staff are being paid to do, and whether it is really worth as much as the work of classroom teachers.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
AJ writes:

Bravo Arnold. Well put.

BTW, you can do similar math for many other government programs. E.g. U.S. Federal and state government spending close to $1 trillion on social programs that are primarily helping people who are poor and how many are poor? bottom 10% of households? bottom 15%? Do the math and you wind up with $50,000 to $200,000 per poor household (depending upon your assumptions).

Vincent writes:

Arnold, don't get me going on school finances. I live in Canada, and my local school board is totally messed up. They were building a replacement high school that was supposed to be open now. It won't be opening till fall 2007. Meanwhile, they are looking to cut back on funding for special ed programs. I just don't get it.

liberty writes:

I would say that Bloomberg doesn't "miss the problem," he cites some very real problems (public ownership means bureaucracy which leads to lack of acountability; low quality teachers are hired, perhaps high quality ones prefer private schools, tenure means they remain even as they under-perform, etc) . You have also located some very real problems (unions and union-backed politicians are wasting the taxpayer money rather than efficiently and effectively running the schools). There are enough problems to go around.

A public choice analysis of the public school system could refine all of the above points.

K writes:

The only way to keep education accountable is to keep it both understandable and flexible. The trend is the other way.

For better or worse the steady increase in federal and state funding and mandates requires a large number of administrators at the district level.

And because the mandates are complex and the funding increasingly comes from outside the district employees become rather immune to local voters and school boards.

Those mandates also distance district employees from the schools themselves. The concerns of principals and teachers fade when rules and money from above act as both carrot and stick.

Solutions? None. The ills of local v. central control will persist.

blink writes:

One caveat with the class size calculation is that a student takes more classes than a teacher teaches. A typical ratio is 8:5 or 6:4. This raises the class side to about 10 students, assuming all employees are teachers. While it is not true that the “vast majority” of employees work outside of the classroom, we still see less than half teach.

Where are all of the others and who earns all of the money? First, there are numerous administrators in the public schools, each earning a hefty salary. Also, there is the oft-forgotten central office staff, also pulling in high salaries. Finally, there is the “keep away” effect: bad teachers with tenure are given meaningless jobs precisely to avoid contact with children in the classroom.

My bottom line: when you hire incompetent individuals and promise them lifetime employment and pay based on longevity, you will waste piles of money. I think Mr. Bloomberg makes this point, though perhaps not as directly as one might like.

Robert Speirs writes:

It's long been clear that the Holy Grail for any teacher is to get out of the classroom. Here in Tallahassee, Florida, the state capital, the second biggest building in town, after the State Capitol itself, is the seventeen-story Florida Department of Education building, full of thousands of bureaucrats, but not one actual school classroom.

Matt writes:

My kids grammar school had about 20 students per school employee, and a bunch of bungalow buildings.

My kids school also had 6,000 parents who were all forced into volunteer positions in the school system, or face sanctions from the community. Parents ran the system, other than the three "r"s. Parents ran the band, sports, PTA, fundraising, and field trips. Each parent was brought into the system when the kid hit first grade, and from then on, parents were trained in particular volunteer specialties, and kept their specialty up until the kid entered college. At that point, we graduated the parent.

Our school was rated in the top ten for parent training, the kids only managed top 20 nationwide.

Omer K writes:

Thomas Sowell's "Inside American Education" documented all this meticulously in 1990.

Guess nothing has changed since then...

RyanG writes:

I have a strong feeling that employee compensation includes benefits such as health care expenses and pensions... Not a shocker at all...

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