Idaho taxpayers employ the equivalent of more than 27,000 full-time workers in the state's public school system. Of those, about 55 percent are teachers - a decrease of about 5 percent of the pie since the state implemented its school funding law in 1994. On the surface, that's not so troubling. But the problem is the burgeoning fleet of non-teacher staff flooding the ranks of school employees. Over the last 15 years, the state has added administrators and other school employees at a much faster clip than teachers or students.
The oversaturation of non-teaching staff is endemic and defies legitimate trends in public school enrollment. It also runs counter to research that shows quality teachers are the most important resource when it comes to student performance. It's hard to hire the best teachers when funds are being diverted toward an ever-expanding support staff.
Records from the State Department of Education indicate while Idaho's student population has grown about 16 percent in the last 15 years, the ranks of school employees have grown disproportionately. Teaching staff grew by 26 percent, but school bureaucracies fared better: District administrations grew by 33 percent, while school building administration grew by 27 percent. But the big growth market is in school classified staff - computer techs, secretarial staff, bus drivers, custodians and similar support professions - which has grown 55 percent since 1994.
Idaho has 115 school districts and 31 charter schools. That means school districts have any number of reasons for adding employees as they have. Some schools, for example, have added employees in compliance with federal disabilities laws, which require one-on-one interaction with special-needs students. Large districts have added new elementary and high schools, requiring a greater number of principals.
But it's easy to see how Idaho's school funding law also contributes to today's school staffing dilemma. Idaho's formula for funding public schools predates popular use of the Internet. It predates charter schools, which lawmakers began adding to the public school system in 1998. It predates virtual schools, distance learning and ramped-up use of college credits for high school students. It's an outdated system, and while lawmakers have tried to shoehorn changes here and there, the state's blueprint for funding schools seems increasingly awkward, especially when we reflect on the statistics.
Last legislative session, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna submitted a plan to try and eliminate some of the staffing eccentricity, but that got sidetracked as lawmakers worked on across-the-board state funding cuts.
There are other approaches. In New York City, the Equity Project Charter School is promising to put the emphasis back on teachers. Set to open in September, the school plans to hire the best by paying the best. The school will recruit master teachers and pay them $125,000 plus a performance-based bonus. How will it do it? By ditching administrators and supervisors apart from the principal; by resisting the urge to hire consultants; by limiting the school support personnel and relying instead on those well-paid teachers to get the job done. According to news accounts, teachers are flocking to the school, wistful for a six-figure salary that is more than double what average New York educators get.
It's the sort of policy that propels public education into the 21st century. All the while, Idaho is still navigating the perilous education waters of 1994, which shortchanges the classroom and the chance to implement some real innovations that improve the quality of education for our kids.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].