School Finance

In a bizarre press release from the AFT, Lorretta Johnson argues that Fordham’s recent research on the growing number of school employees who don’t teach is all about “the bottom line of a school district budget.”

Michael Petrilli, Fordham’s president notes,

Frankly, the AFT has missed the point here. The question isn't whether our schools should employ paraprofessionals—it's why some schools are able to get by with so many fewer aides than others and why other countries seem to get by with hardly any at all. Life is full of trade-offs, and if we want to invest in higher teacher salaries or more time for collaboration, taking a hard look at the number of nonteaching staff might be a good place to start.

After all, The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach is just one of two studies that looks at these staggering and growing numbers.


Why do American public schools spend more of their operating budgets on non-teachers than almost every other country in the world, including nations that are as prosperous and humane as ours? We can’t be certain. But we do know this:

  • The number of non-teachers on U.S. school payrolls has soared over the past fifty years, far more rapidly than the rise in teachers. And the amount of money in district budgets consumed by their salaries and benefits has grown apace for at least the last twenty years.
  • Underneath the averages and totals, states and districts vary enormously in how many non-teachers they employ. Why do Illinois taxpayers pay for forty staff per thousand pupils while Connecticut pays for eighty-nine? Why does Orange County (Orlando), Florida, employ eleven teacher aides per thousand students when Miami-Dade gets by with seven?

What accounts for such growth and such differences? We don’t know nearly as much as we’d like on this topic, but it’s not a total mystery. The advent and expansion of special education, for example, led to substantial demand for classroom aides and specialists to address the needs of youngsters with disabilities. Broadening school duties to include more food service, health care,...

The number of non-teaching staff in the United States (those employed by school systems but not serving as classroom teachers) has grown by 130 percent since 1970. Non-teachers—more than three million strong—now comprise half of the public school workforce. Their salaries and benefits absorb one-quarter of current education expenditures. 

The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach analyzes how school staffing has changed over the last half-century, what might be driving the trends, and whether these developments are financially sustainable or educationally wise.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This short review originally ran in Education Gadfly Weekly on July 23, 2014. Here we present the original review with an added Ohio perspective.

This new report from the University of Arkansas compares the productivity of public charter schools and district schools, both in terms of cost effectiveness and return on investment (ROI). For the cost-effectiveness analysis, the authors consider how many test-score points students gain on the 2010–11 NAEP for each $1,000 invested; to measure ROI, the authors used, among other data, student-achievement results from CREDO’s national charter school study (that matched students via a “virtual twin” methodology). The key finding: For every $1,000 invested, charter students across the United States earned a weighted average of an additional seventeen points in math and sixteen additional points in reading on NAEP, compared to traditional district students, controlling for student characteristics such as poverty and special-education status. This translates into charters nationwide being 40 percent more cost effective. Meanwhile, Buckeye State charters are less cost effective than national charters, though still more so than their district counterparts within the state. Ohio charters averaged nine additional NAEP points in both reading and math per $1,000 in funding relative to comparable districts. The researchers...

According to this brief from Third Way, our current teacher pension system is a “rip-off”; furthermore, “no private plan would be allowed to behave this way.” Under federal guidelines set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, private-sector employees are partially vested in their pensions in three years and fully vested in six years. By contrast, states have the authority to determine their own teacher vesting periods—which can last up to twenty years. Nineteen states “require their teachers to spend at least 10 years in the classroom before they can even vest at the minimum level of their retirement.” With 40 to 50 percent of teachers leaving the profession within five years, most teachers never reap their employers’ contributions, leaving states to eagerly inhale what’s left behind. Another big problem: teachers in twelve states (over 40 percent of the teaching force) work outside of the Social Security system, and no feasible guidelines exist for transferring one pension to another or a pension to Social Security coverage. To reboot the public pension system, the authors propose a mobile “cash-balance” system that would “allow cash flow to be uninterrupted for current and future retirees.”

SOURCE: Tamara Hiler and Lanae Herickson Hatalsky, “...

The Partnership for Inner-City Education announced today that Kathleen Porter-Magee has been named its superintendent and chief academic officer. This is such a terrific match, and I’m completely thrilled for everyone involved.

The Partnership is one of a growing number of organizations that are, collectively, brightening the future of urban Catholic schooling after years of steady decline. For 50 years, inner-city Catholic schools have been shutting their doors, primarily for financial reasons, despite an extensive body of academic research showing how valuable they can be for low-income kids and communities.

To address issues of financial sustainability and academic performance, a handful of organizations are reimagining the governance and operations of Catholic schools, borrowing the highly successful network structure from charter-management organizations. The Partnership, which has supported Catholic schools in New York City for more than 20 years, signed a landmark agreement with the Archdiocese in 2013, giving the organization authority over six schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. They are now, like Cristo Rey, a group of Catholic schools functioning as a unit but outside the traditional diocesan and parish system.

The Partnership couldn’t have found a better leader...

Peet’s Coffee and Tea: We hardly knew you. According to the Columbus DispatchPeet’s coffee shop in downtown Columbus will close after less than a year of operation. (The shop is near where I work.) To quote the company’s spokesperson, the reason for closing the store is “to focus on our top-performing locations.”

If only Ohio’s policymakers, district leaders, and charter-school authorizers just as aggressively closed persistently underperforming schools, and instead directed resources to grow top-performing ones or those demonstrating promise, or to start new schools from scratch. (Of course, there has to be an orderly and responsible process to closing schools.) Rather, too many low-rated public schools, both district and charter, limp along year-after-year, depriving students of a great education on the taxpayers’ dime.

In the business realm, unprofitable entities are shuttered, sold off, or merged to allow the larger organization to thrive. Yet in public education it seems like bad schools are immortal—and that’s not good policy....

A new Urban Institute series grades America’s public pension plans on three criteria: whether they place employees on a path to retirement security, create proper incentives to retain a productive workforce, and set aside enough funds to finance the future benefits promised to employees. The authors separate out state-administered retirement plans for several occupations, including teachers, awarding thirty-two teacher plans a C, with the remaining split roughly equally among B’s, D’s, and F’s. There are no A’s, and the F’s include Ohio, Kentucky, and Rhode Island, among others. Upon further inspection, the C grade seems to be awarded so frequently because forty-one teacher plans receive A’s for having a suitable “retirement income for long-term employees” (in other words, the plans are plenty generous for veteran teachers). The grades vary much more—and tend to be much lower—for short-term employees. The analysts also include three research papers that dig into various thorny issues relative to public pension systems, including one that demonstrates how traditional plans discourage work at older ages. They find that in 63 percent of traditional state and local pension plans employees hired at the age of twenty-five maximize their lifetime benefits, net of their own contributions, by fifty-seven years...

The #Kimye edition

After discussing what the research says young North West’s likelihood of educational success are, Mike and Michelle get down to brass tacks on Oklahoma’s possible Common Core repeal, the value of a college degree, and what makes Boston’s charter sector so high quality. Amber grades America’s public pension plans.

Amber's Research Minute

The State of Retirement: Grading America's Public Pension Plans by Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, and Benjamin G. Southgate, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2014).

The F-AIR-Y Conspiracy

After considering whether their support of the Common Core has turned them gay, Mike and Checker get serious, discussing how young teachers are getting the short end of the stick with regard to teacher pensions and why so many low-income students drop out of college. Amber wonders why well-off U.S. students do poorly on internationally benchmarked exams.

Amber's Research Minute

Not just the problem of other people’s children: U.S. student performance in global perspective by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, (Program on Education Policy and Governance andEducation Next, May 2014).