Policy Study

Doing More with Less

Competitive Contracting for School Support Services


School spending per-pupil increased 34 percent during the 1980s after adjustment for inflation. Why, then, must many teachers spend their own money to provide their classrooms with the most basic supplies such as books, paper, and chalk?

The student-to-staff ratio has declined since 1970 from 13 students for every staff person (including non-teachers) to roughly nine to one in 1992. Yet a common complaint by parents is that their children don’t receive enough individualized attention in public schools.

Paradoxes like these abound in public education. Despite decades of spending increases, the perception exists that when it comes to public education, we scrimp on our schools. To a certain extent, the perception is valid. After all, just 58 cents of every education dollar actually make it to the classroom, leaving local educators with far fewer resources than they might have otherwise.

But what hobbles our schools is not a lack of money, but a lack of money management. When resources are used inefficiently, when state and federal mandates hamstring local education budgets, or when onerous collective-bargaining agreements squeeze school finances, even a generous amount of funding evaporates by the time it reaches the classroom. (See sidebar on Page 2.)

The key question is not “how much” money is spent, but “how well” that money is spent. Across the country, school administrators are asking themselves that very question as they look for new ways to channel more dollars into the classroom. In the area of support services, administrators are finding some budgetary relief by turning to the efficiencies of the private sector for help. By contracting with private companies for busing, maintenance, and food service, schools can do more with less. Reducing costs, increasing revenues, and tapping new reserves of capital investment and expertise, can help school administrators focus on their core responsibility: educating children.

Non-instructional and support activities make up a sizeable portion of public-school budgets. Consider:

  • Only about half of all public-school employees are teachers. Out of 4.6 million school staff employed in 1991 by the nation’s public schools, just 2.4 million were teachers.
  • Between 1960 and 1984, the number of nonclassroom instructional personnel in America’s public-school classrooms grew by 400 percent, nearly seven times the rate of growth of classroom teachers.
  • Public schools operate with five times more noninstructional personnel per student than parochial schools.