February 6, 2009 2:17PM

Hitting Bone Is the Least of Our Worries

Once again, the monthly jobs report is woeful except in education, health services, and government, where there were employment gains. Yet a huge part of the ever-growing “stimulus” — about $140 billion, last I'd heard — is aimed at education, including $79 billion to help ensure that states don’t have to cut a nickel from their public schools and possibly let some staffers go. I mean, the situation is dire, right?

“We're well past cutting through the fat, through the flesh, muscle,” Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho frantically warned in USA Today  last month. "We're now sawing into bone.”

Ignoring the infamous dysfunction in Miami, is there any reason to believe that nationwide, many states or districts are really about to hit bone? I mean, when was the last time they even saw muscle, much less what lies beneath it?

Let’s take a look at some long-term trends and see how lean and mean our schools really are, keeping in mind that throughout the last few decades long-term reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been essentially stagnant, especially among 17-year-olds, our schools’ final products.

First, let's examine per-pupil expenditures. The chart below, taken from table 174 of the federal Digest of Education Statistics, has a line for every state showing inflation-adjusted, current per-pupil expenditures between 1969 and 2004 (the latest year with available data). Obviously, you can’t pick out individual states, but I wanted to show that the overall trend for every state is upward. In addition, to help better put this chart into context, know that the average, per-pupil expenditure nationwide went from $4,060 in 1969 to $9,266 in 2004, a 128 percent increase. Also, the bottom line in the chart represents Utah, and even that state saw a 73 percent funding increase between 1969 and 2004. Finally, note that these are expenditures covering current costs, which exclude capital costs like building construction and maintenance, so the numbers do not reflect full educational expenditures.

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What about the threat to jobs? Public employees and officials are masters of warning about falling skies, so there's a good chance that without any stimulus schools wouldn’t have to let nearly as many people go as some officials claim. But the important question from education and tax-paying standpoints is not whether people will have to be let go, but whether it can be done without hurting the final product. Keeping in mind the stagnant academic results we’ve gotten over the last several decades, the answer seems to be “Yes, it can.”

The next chart, taken from table 61 in the Digest, helps make this clear, showing changes in public school pupil/teacher ratios between 1970 and 2005. We have certainly been adding a lot of teachers, with the ratio dropping from 22.3 pupils per teacher in 1970 to 15.7 in 2005, a 30 percent decrease in the number of students per teacher.

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The same thing has happened with administrators, as shown in the last chart, which uses data from Digest table 77. In 1969 there were 697.7 students per public school administrator. By 2005 that number had dropped to 435.3, a 38 percent decrease in the number of students for each administrative employee.

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In light of these trends, here’s my diagnosis: We’ve been employing a lot more people and spending oodles more money to get essentially the same results, so we definitely do not need to worry about hitting this patient’s bones. Indeed, what we need to worry about is quite the opposite: As quickly as possible, getting him the life-saving financial lipo he so desperately needs!