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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.

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