Spending is merely spending — not learning, not teaching

Patrick Gibbons

U.S. Senator Harry Reid and fellow Democrats recently managed to beat a Republican filibuster and push yet more relief for already bloated state budgets through the U.S. Senate.

While the Nevada teacher union is cheering Reid with full-page newspaper ads claiming students will benefit, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to Reid, $83 million will be available to K-12 education in Nevada to "save teacher jobs." However, it is unlikely teacher jobs face any real threat in the first place.

By NPRI's 2009 estimates, Clark County School District employed one adult for every eight students, while Washoe County School District employed one adult for every 7.2 students. Of those adults, only half at the most were actual classroom teachers. It may be as low as one out of three.

Estimates from the U.S. Department of Education in 2006-07 put the number of Nevada staff at one adult for every 12.1 students. Even U.S. DOE, however, believed Nevada was underreporting the proportion of staffers.

So if public K-12 in Nevada employs thousands of adults who are not actual teachers, why should we assume the money will go to save only teachers?

The reason bailout supporters point to teachers — rather than school administrators, central office administrators, plumbers, electricians, bus drivers, auto mechanics, carpenters, engineers and architects, who also populate the payroll — is because teachers are respected while much of the bureaucracy is seen as wasteful overhead.

Suggesting teachers will be fired without additional tax revenue is a disingenuous strategy employed to scare voting adults into supporting the existing, politically active bloat in education. Acquiring new revenue allows the education establishment to avoid having to make real adult decisions — like where to cut the budget and how to provide "quality" service.

Nevertheless, let's assume the bailout money will magically save only teachers. How far will the $83 million go?  And what does it mean for the classroom?

Today the average teacher in Nevada makes about $73,996 in total compensation. But because teacher-union contracts require "last hired, first fired," it's the newer and thus less expensive teachers who would be shown the door — regardless of their skill or competence. Assuming total compensation for a new teacher averages $50,000, and $83 million had to be saved, about 1,660 teachers could lose their jobs.

In 2006-07, according to U.S. Department of Education figures, Nevada employed 23,423 teachers. Thus, terminating 1,660 teachers would amount to about 7 percent of the teacher workforce in the state — making teaching still one of the safest professions in the Silver State.

So how large would classrooms grow?

According to U.S. Department of Education figures, Nevada's pupil per teacher ratio was 18.3 in 2006-07. Losing 1,660 teachers, the ratio would rise to 19.7 — or just 1.4 additional students per teacher. Not exactly the end of the world.

Not that class size matters all that much. Nationwide, pupil-teacher ratios fell from 27 students per teacher in 1950 to 15.5 in 2007. The growth in the number of teachers has added greatly to ballooning education costs, but has contributed next to nothing toward greater student achievement.

According to Stanford University professor Eric Hanushek, "Fully 85 percent of the studies suggest either that fewer teachers per student are better or that there is less confidence than usually required that there is any relationship at all."

In other words, 85 percent of the studies on class-size reduction suggest its effects are negative, insignificant or nonexistent. Thus, the $290 million Nevada spent this biennium on class-size reduction is unlikely to benefit students at all.

"Before the political popularity to voters of reductions in class size became known," writes Hanushek, "most educational researchers and policy makers had discarded such policies as both too expensive and generally ineffective, leaving only teacher unions and others with clear vested interests in the policies to support such ideas."

Obviously, the teacher unions profit immensely from class-size reduction funds, since more teachers mean more dues-paying members and more political clout. Thus the unions campaign vigorously to make class-size reduction popular among parents and get the dollars flowing into union coffers, unfettered.

Because parents assume, entirely independent of the science, that small classes lead to a better education, class-size reduction is politically popular. However the effectiveness of a smaller class depends entirely on the quality of the teacher. In reality, Nevada's expensive class size reduction program probably increases the likelihood that children are subjected to more ineffective teachers.

The fact is, $83 million spent "saving teacher jobs" — like the $290 million going to class-size reduction and like last year's $145 million in federal education "stimulus" — are virtually certain to have no impact on Nevada student achievement.

What is more certain is that the over-$500 million will continue the subsidizing of Nevada's educational mediocrity — while, of course, enriching union coffers.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an educational analyst for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more information visit http://npri.org.