To improve education in Florida, follow the money
By J. Robert McClure Guest columnist
“Follow the money,” a phrase popularized by the film “All the President’s Men,” is good advice to heed when examining the woes of our nation’s underachieving public schools. Vast amounts of money support public education. The problem, as a recent study reveals, is that much of the money is misdirected.So let’s follow the money. In education, where most of the operating revenue goes to paying personnel, that means analyzing the staffing patterns. In a detailed study that has received too little attention since its release late last year, Benjamin Scafidi, professor of economics at Georgia College & State University, did just that.The report, “The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools,” was released by The Friedman Foundation. It compared student enrollment and staffing over an18-year period beginning in1992. It’s a period, incidentally, when pupil achievement declined.Here’s what he found: During those years, student enrollment nationwide grew by17.2 percent, the number of teachers grew by 32.4 percent, and the number of “administrators and other staff” grew 45.7 percent.He went a step further, comparing this allocation of funds with that in the affluent nations to which the U.S. is most often compared, the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.His study reports that those nations’ public schools averaged spending 63.8 percent of their operating funds on teachers, whereas U.S. public schools spent only 54.8 percent.You might think data like these would prompt the teachers union to get behind a nationwide movement started by Patrick Byrne, founder of . His idea: Mandate that at least 65 percent of school funding be spent in the classroom.You’d be mistaken. In 2008, when the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission proposed a state constitutional amendment that incorporated the 65 percent mandate, the union fiercely fought it.Indeed, the Florida Education Association was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led the Florida Supreme Court to remove the amendment from the ballot, thereby denying voters a chance even to consider it.It seems that the union leaders’ fear of some pro-school-choice wording in that same amendment caused them to oppose a measure mandating that a majority of school funding be spent on teaching instead of a bloated bureaucracy.Scafidi’s enlightening study also included an exhaustive comparison of the growth in staffing in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.Florida fared better than most states, including several where the growth in the administrators and other staff dwarfed enrollment growth. In Hawaii, for instance, enrollment rose only 2.7 percent while administrators/other staff grew 68.9 percent.In contrast, while Florida’s enrollment grew 36.2 percent and the number of teachers 69.5 percent, primarily because of the class-size amendment, administrators and other staff grew only 40.6 percent — not much more than the enrollment growth.Three factors probably contributed to Florida’s relative restraint in expanding its school bureaucracy.    The class-size amendment meant that revenue had to go toward hiring enough teachers to meet its rigid caps, even though research has raised doubts that those caps boost pupil achievement.Meanwhile, Florida’s system of consolidated countywide school districts is arguably more efficient than the governance systems in states with a patchwork of smaller school districts, each with its own bureaucracy.Moreover, some credit for Florida’s restraint also must go to the governors who led during most of this period. Democrat Lawton Chiles (1991-98) was a “fiscal hawk” who had wearied of Washington after18 years in the U.S. Senate, where he’d fought a losing battle against deficits. Republican Jeb Bush (1999-2007) was a fiscal conservative as well as a determined reformer of education.Granted, some of the growth in “administrators and other staff” was beyond the control of state and local school officials and can be attributed to the tendency of the federal, state and local school bureaucracies to feed off each other as well as the schools’ need to address some problems that a generation ago were handled by other entities.The bottom line, however, is that constant vigilance is required to limit the growth of this money-devouring monster and to steer a larger share of the school revenue to the place where it belongs: the classrooms. It’s a battle that never ends.J. Robert McClure is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a Florida-based, nonpartisan think tank.