Substantial savings possible by increasing student-teacher ratios

Ohio’s faces an unprecedented $8 billion budget deficit next year. With 40 percent of state revenue invested in K-12 education, Ohio’s public schools will surely have to endure a fair share of the cuts. To his credit, Governor Strickland has taken action, asking the Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation to investigate options for cost-savings and efficiencies in education. One area that should be examined closely is student-teacher ratios, as upward of two-thirds of district spending goes toward staff salaries and benefits.

Current state law calls for ratios no larger than 25 students per teacher (though the governor’s education reform plan, passed into law last summer, aims to lower the ratio in kindergarten through third grade to 15:1 over the next several years). In practice, however, average student-teacher ratios don’t fall anywhere close to the state maximum. Just a handful of Ohio districts have a ratio higher than 25:1 and more than half have ratios below 18:1.

My colleagues and I analyzed average student-teacher ratio, enrollment, and teacher salary data for local school districts that the state education department makes publicly available. We wanted to know what the financial impact of increasing student-teacher ratios might be – especially if ratios were increased by just a few students. How much money could really be saved? Would the state and local school districts see a sizeable difference in their bottom line?

Here is what we found:

  • If every district in the Buckeye State raised its average student-teacher ratio by one student (e.g., from 16:1 to 17:1), there is a potential statewide savings of $276 million in teacher salaries alone.
  • If the districts with ratios lower than 20:1 raised theirs to that level, the state could save $458 million in teacher salaries.
  • If the districts with ratios lower than 22:1 raised theirs to that level, the state could save $848 million in teacher salaries.
  • If every district in the state operated at an average 25:1 student-teacher ratio, the state could save $1.38 billion in teacher salaries alone.

This is a simple analysis to be sure. Many factors impact student-teacher ratios and aren’t fully accounted for here, from districts classifying administrative staff as teachers for reporting purposes to the increasing number of intervention specialists needed to serve students with special needs to the requirement that Title I elementary schools maintain very small class sizes.

But it can’t be denied that making a small increase in the number of students that teachers serve could give the state, and local districts, real fiscal relief. When you consider the fringe benefits, professional development needs, and retirement costs that go along with each teacher, the potential savings would be even greater. Further, these are savings that could be realized almost immediately, as opposed to other suggestions that will take time to phase in, like the increased use of technology to provide instruction.

At the district level, the savings become even starker. Take Bexley, a suburban Columbus district which is asking voters for an additional $3 million per year on November 2. Bexley’s reported student-teacher ratio, for the most recent year data are available, is just over 16:1. Increasing it to 20:1 would realize up to $1.8 million per year in savings in teacher salaries alone. Boosting it to 22:1 would save $2.4 million – just $600,000 shy of what voters are being asked to support.

The situation is similar in Oakwood, a district outside Dayton which is asking voters for an additional $1.8 million per year. Oakwood’s average student-teacher ratio is just under 16:1. Increasing it to 18:1 would realize about $996,000 per year in savings in teacher salaries alone. Boosting it to 20:1 would save $1.7 million annually – $100,000 shy of the levy request.

There are surely similar examples across the state – districts that are essentially sitting, perhaps unknowingly, on a pot of money that could ameliorate their fiscal pain with little to no actual impact on student learning.

Advocates of smaller class sizes won’t be happy with any recommendation to put more kids in a classroom. But research shows that good teachers can be just as effective with 21 or 23 students as they can with 15 or 18, especially in grades four and up.

There are obviously clear losers in this scenario. Increasing student-teacher ratios means fewer teaching jobs. But when the state is facing a mammoth budget deficit and is trimming off tiny expenditures at every corner, we have to consider all opportunities for larger potential savings. 

This article originally appeared in the Columbus Dispatch.

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