Why do American public schools spend more of their operating budgets on non-teachers than almost every other country in the world, including nations that are as prosperous and humane as ours? We can’t be certain. But we do know this:
» The number of non-teachers on U.S. school payrolls has soared over the past fifty years, far more rapidly than the rise in teacher numbers. And the amount of money in district budgets consumed by their salaries and benefits has grown apace for at least the last twenty years.
Underneath the averages and totals, states and districts vary enormously in how many non-teachers they employ. Why do Illinois taxpayers pay for forty staff per thousand pupils while Connecticut pays for eighty-nine? Why does Orange County, Florida (Orlando) employ eleven teacher aides per thousand students when Miami-Dade gets by with seven?
What accounts for such growth—and such differences? We don’t know nearly as much as we’d like on this topic, but it’s not a total mystery. The advent and expansion of special education, for example, obviously gave rise to substantial demand for classroom aides and specialists to address
the needs of youngsters with disabilities. The widening of school duties to include more food service, health care, and sundry other responsibilities accounts for more.
But such additions to the obligations of schools are not peculiar to the United States and they certainly cannot explain big staffing differences from place to place within our country.
Retired Ripon Superintendent Richard Zimman’s 2009 speech to the Madison Rotary Club:
“Beware of legacy practices (most of what we do every day is the maintenance of the status quo), @12:40 minutes into the talk – the very public institutions intended for student learning has become focused instead on adult employment. I say that as an employee. Adult practices and attitudes have become embedded in organizational culture governed by strict regulations and union contracts that dictate most of what occurs inside schools today. Any impetus to change direction or structure is met with swift and stiff resistance. It’s as if we are stuck in a time warp keeping a 19th century school model on life support in an attempt to meet 21st century demands.” Zimman went on to discuss the Wisconsin DPI’s vigorous enforcement of teacher licensing practices and provided some unfortunate math & science teacher examples (including the “impossibility” of meeting the demand for such teachers (about 14 minutes)). He further cited exploding teacher salary, benefit and retiree costs eating instructional dollars (“Similar to GM”; “worry” about the children given this situation).