New taxes are frequently sold as protecting police, fire, and education, though these together represent barely 25% of all US government spending. Where does the rest go? It's a giant bait and switch, made worse by the fact that even within these categories, new headcount is more likely to be added in administrative and overhead roles rather than in promised functions such as "teachers". This is the subject of my Forbes column this week:
There is a way to reconcile this: While increases in education spending are sold to the public as a way to improve results in the classroom, in reality most of the new money and headcount are going to anything but increasing the number of teachers.
Let’s start with an example from the city of Phoenix, New York. Why this town? Am I cherry-picking? In fact, I was looking for data on my home town of Phoenix, Arizona. But I have come to discover that while school districts are really good at getting tomorrow’s cafeteria menu on the web, they are a little less diligent in giving equal transparency to their budget and staffing data. But it turns out that Phoenix, New York, which I discovered when I was looking for my home town data, publishes a lovely summary of its budget data, so I will use it as an example that helps make my point.
The city’s budget summary for 2012-2013 is here. Overall, they are proposing a 0.4% increase in spending for next year, which initially seems lean until one understands that they are projecting a 4% decline in enrollment, such that this still represents an increase in spending per pupil faster than inflation. But the interesting part is the mix.
What are the two things politicians are always claiming they need extra money for? Classroom instruction and infrastructure. As you can see in this budget, only two categories of spending go down: classroom instruction and facility maintenance and cleaning. Administrative expenses increase 4% (effectively 8% per pupil) and employee benefits expenses increase just under 1% despite a total decline in staffing. Though I am not very familiar with the program, one irony here is that the fastest growing category is the 8.7% growth (nearly 13% per pupil) in spending with BOCES, a New York initiative that was supposed to reduce administrative costs in public schools. In other words, spending increases are going to everything except the areas which politicians promise.
I don’t think these trends are isolated to this one admittedly random example. The Arizona auditor-general recently did a study on trends in education spending in the state. They found exactly the same tendency to reduce classroom spending to pay for increases in administrative headcounts.
Read it all, as they say.