Teacher strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky are nearing the end of their second weeks as educators protest low pay and inadequate classroom resources. These strikes come on the heels of a similar strike in West Virginia late last month.
These teachers have valid grievances that urgently need to be addressed. In Oklahoma, a student recently underscored how outdated textbooks are across the state when she discovered hers was once used by 41-year-old country singer Blake Shelton. In Kentucky, dilapidated heating systems forced school closures across the state during the winter. Last June, 35 West Virginia schools sustained severe flooding damage due to poor drainage systems. Nobody would deny that this is an outrageous situation.
The teacher salary picture is no different. In the 23 years between 1992 and 2015, Oklahoma teacher salaries only increased by about four percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. Bear in mind that Oklahoma teachers were the lowest paid in the country on average in 2016—so much so that their 2016 Teacher of the Year decided to move to Texas, where the average teacher takes home an additional $13,000 annually. The salary situation in Kentucky and West Virginia is even bleaker, where teacher pay in both states decreased three percent in real dollars between 1992 and 2015.
But calling for funding and tax increases to address these problems, as unions have done in each of these states, misplaces the source of these problems. Taxpayers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, and across the United States are categorically not to blame for inadequate levels of classroom resources.
Between 1992 and 2015, inflation-adjusted per-student spending in Oklahoma increased over 26 percent. Kentucky upped its per-student spending by 38 percent in real dollars over the same period, while West Virginia increased its per-pupil funding 39 percent. This isn’t a trend confined to these states. Nationwide, we’ve increased our real per-student funding by 27 percent during the same time period, as the average teacher salary has declined 2 percent in real dollars.
Taxpayers in the striking states and across the country value education or they wouldn’t have been committing these additional resources over time. So where is this money going? Why are teachers and classrooms so cash-starved?
The answer is a systematic, decades-long hiring glut of administrative and non-teaching staffing positions, according to Professor Benjamin Scafidi, director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University. His 2017 analysis of staffing surges reveals the massive opportunity costs of misplaced, non-classroom-related spending priorities for teachers and students. This trend is blatantly clear in each striking state and nationwide.
In Oklahoma, where student enrollment increased 7 percent between 1992 and 2015, state hiring rates outpaced these gains. Oklahoma took on 12 percent more teachers but increased its non-teaching staff over 36 percent.
Kentucky also saw a seven percent enrollment increase in the same period, while hiring 11 percent more teachers and an astonishing 41 percent more non-teaching staff.
In West Virginia, even as enrollment declined statewide by 12 percent, the state’s teaching force only declined 5 percent, while administrators and non-teaching staff saw a 10 percent hiring increase.
Nationwide, the picture is similar. As student enrollment climbed by a fifth between 1992 and 2015, the teacher workforce increased by 29 percent, while non-teaching staff skyrocketed nearly 50 percent.
These kinds of spending priorities come with stark opportunity costs, impacting teachers and students alike. If non-teaching staff hiring in these states had tracked with, rather than massively exceeding actual enrollment rates, the savings would have been huge. Let’s look at what could have been possible with these extra resources had each of these states avoided these non-teacher hiring sprees.
In West Virginia, not hiring the nearly 4,000 extra non-teaching staff beyond the state’s enrollment totals could have saved almost $233 million, when measured by an average of $60,000 per full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. These savings could have been used to give every teacher in the state a permanent $11,620 raise. Alternatively, it could have funded over 29,000 kids with $8,000 Education Savings Accounts (ESA).
Oklahoma hired over 6,000 non-teaching staff beyond their enrollment increases over the same period. That’s more than $373 million extra, at $60,000 per FTE, the state could have avoided paying. This could have funded a nearly $9,000 salary bump for teachers statewide or funded over 46,000 students with $8,000 ESAs.
Kentucky hired nearly 13,500 non-teaching staff beyond enrollment increases over this period. That translates to a whopping $808 million by the same FTE metric. This is enough to give every teacher an immediate $11,000 raise or provide $8,000 ESAs to over 100,000 kids.
The trend is similarly depressing nationwide. Across the country, education systems hired nearly 600,000 non-teaching staff beyond enrollment increases over this period. That translates to $34 billion devoted to $60,000 per-FTE positions beyond increased needs at the school level. These savings could have given every public school teacher in America an $11,000 raise or given 4.3 million students $8,000 ESAs.
Want to reduce class sizes? Want to fix shoddy school buildings? Want to give your kids’ teachers a raise? Want to extend the promise of school choice to students? Responsible staffing priorities can allow that to happen under current funding levels.
These hiring sprees also exacerbate another problem diverting tax dollars from classrooms—ballooning school pension costs. Changing birth demographics are already putting a strain on public sector defined-benefit pension systems across the country. Hiring more school staff, well beyond enrollment gains, only increases the future liabilities of these pension systems. Per-pupil school pension costs doubled nationwide over the past decade. They now consume over $1,000 of education spending for every public school student in America that could otherwise be spent in classrooms.
Teachers striking around the country are right to be outraged about the state of our education resources. But it’s short-sighted to ask taxpayers to keep footing additional spending increases when state and district educational leaders’ aren’t using that money where it’s needed most. Instead, teachers and taxpayers alike should direct their outrage where it belongs—at spending priorities that squander our limited education resources in ways that harm both teachers and students.