More Money, Same Problems for Oregon Schools

By William Newell

Oregon’s 2013 legislative session ended with the passage of the largest education budget the state of Oregon has ever seen. At nearly $6.75 billion, the budget has been hailed both as a renewed effort to prioritize education and as a weak attempt to reinvest in a lagging school system. The purported decade of underinvestment looks confirmed by the fact that Oregon’s school system was given a “C” by Education Week and a “D-” by Students First, two respected education research institutions. But is it true Oregon’s government has spent too little and thus neglected its duty to provide a quality education system? The answer might surprise you.

Instead of investing too little, Oregon schools have failed to invest their scarce resources in the right places, namely students and teachers. A major part of the problem lies in the hiring of an ever-increasing number of administrators and non-teaching support staff who are soaking up highly valuable but limited funding. A report released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice shows that Oregon had a 47.3 percent increase in the number of administrators and non-teaching support staff from 1992 to 2009. This astounding growth more than triples that of students and teachers, which only grew by 15.4 percent and 12.7 percent respectively. Oregon schools now employ more administrators and non-teaching support staff than they do teachers.

At the same time, student achievement has stagnated with small increases and even decreases in national reading and mathematics scores. Looking at statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Oregon fourth-grade students have improved their scores in mathematics by 14 points but have fallen below the national average score at the same time. Eighth graders, once well above the national average in math, have regressed back down to the national average. In reading, fourth graders are below the national average and have only seen a two-point score increase. For eighth graders, their reading scores have fallen by two points and have also regressed to the national average. All in all, Oregon students have not reaped the benefits of additional administrators and support staff.

If the growth of administrators and support staff had risen in line with that of students, Oregon could have saved $302,612,947 per year according to the same Friedman Foundation report. These savings could have meant reducing taxes or employing new teachers and keeping young teachers from being fired due to district cuts. A little math shows that if Oregon spent that $300 million on employing teachers compensated at $80,000 (salary plus benefits), the state could have employed almost 3,782 more teachers than it does now.* Instead, Oregon maintains the third largest class sizes in the entire U.S., according to the National Education Association, with a 20.2 student-to-teacher ratio. Instead of creating a larger, more inefficient education bureaucracy with its new money, Oregon schools should refocus on those who matter most: students and their teachers.

*Teacher compensation was calculated by taking the average Oregon K-12 teacher salary of $57,000 plus 40% for benefits.

William Newell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a graduate of Willamette University.

Oregon’s Real Education Spending Has Quadrupled Since 1957

Advocates on all sides of the public education spending-versus-results debate can cite various statistics to make their respective cases. Some argue that more money leads to better results. Others (myself included) cite studies that show spending more dollars per student―at least in the ways our public school system has spent them―makes little or no difference in educational outcomes.

Now, another fascinating fact has come to light. Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond recently wrote an article about what she found in an old 1957 U.S. Census document entitled “Finances of School Districts.”It turns out that Oregon spent more per pupil that year than any other state―a whopping $356, which was almost 40 percent more than the national median of $256. Of course, these were “current operating expenditures” and likely excluded items such as construction and debt service, which today raise total per pupil spending on the order of sixteen percent.

While Hammond didn’t inflation-adjust those numbers to what they would be today, it’s easy enough to do. Using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Consumer Price Index Calculator, Oregon’s $356 in per student spending in 1957 dollars is the equivalent of about $2,919 in today’s dollars.

So, what are we actually spending per pupil in Oregon today? The latest full data reported by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, shows Oregon spent $11,391 per enrolled student in the 2009-10 school year. That’s nearly four times what we spent in 1957. And while it is about four percent below what was being spent nationally ($11,841), when you compare that difference to the fact that per capita income of Oregonians recently has been almost nine percent below the national average, you will see that Oregonians are actually funding our public schools at a higher level than the nation, compared to our ability to pay.

Even acknowledging that there are slightly different ways to count students (enrolled, average daily membership, fall enrollment, etc.) and different ways to tally spending (current or total), the order of magnitude between what we spent in 1957 and what we spent recently is so large that such differences pale in comparison.

Any way you look at the numbers, after adjusting for inflation, Oregon is spending several times what we spent per public school student in 1957. So, what are we getting for that increase?

State by state educational outcome comparisons are hard to come by for the 1950s, but more recently the national publication Education Week has rated all state school systems on a number of criteria. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, Oregon ranked 43rd overall, which gave us a C- report card score. On K-12 Student Achievement alone, we rated a D all three years. Unless Oregon rated an F on some similar scale in 1957, it is hard to see how spending nearly four times as much per student as we spent then is giving us any appreciable bang for our harder-to-come-by bucks.

So, rather than look for ways to spend in real terms, say, five times what we did in 1957, we should let families spend the dollars we do have on the public, private, religious, or home schools of their choice. School choice breaks up the monopoly control of teachers unions and the educational establishment. Unleashing consumer power gets more bang for the buck in other areas of the economy; it’s time to put it to work in education.