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Why We Can't Have Nice Things
Bureaucratic Bloat Is Eating Away at the American Education System

Americans have been spending more and more on education—both K-12 and higher ed—over the last several decades, but those investments seem to be delivering ever-more measly returns. Over at Brookings, Jonathan Rothwell offers some grim statistics on “the declining productivity of education,” focusing specifically on one source of the decay: bureaucratic bloat, or the steadily increasing share of education expenditures that flow to managers and administrators.

For higher education, a major factor driving up costs has been a growth in the number of highly-paid non-teaching professionals. In 1988, for every 100 full-time equivalent students, there were on average 23 college employees. By 2012, that number had increased to 31 employees, with a shift toward the highest paying non-teaching occupations. Managers and professionals now outnumber faculty, who comprise just a third of the higher education workforce. […]

In primary and secondary public education, where price increases have been less dramatic, there has been a decline in bureaucratic efficiency. The number of students for every district-level administrator fell from 519 in 1980 to 365 in 2012. Principals and assistant principals managed 382 students in 1980 but only 294 in 2012.

Rothwell’s post helps illustrate the exhaustion of mainstream policy thinking in the West on both sides of the political divide. The Boomer progressive formula of more spending and more borrowing and more subsidies has done more to nourish rapacious and growing bureaucracies than improve educational outcomes or skill acquisition for disadvantaged students.

And while conservative state and local policymakers have the right instinct about the risks of administrative bloat, few have offered a workable program for actually restructuring and rebuilding these institutions while excising the crud that has accumulated over the years, offering instead indiscriminate cuts and starve-the-beast orthodoxy.

One reason voters delivered such a stunning repudiation of the establishment last month is that elites have stopped offering bold or creative thinking—allowing themselves instead to become complacent in the face of mediocrity and decline—and voters sensed this. Now is the time to turn things around.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    It ought to be a fairly simple matter to stipulate that everyone working in a school system (except maybe the custodians) must rotate in and out of at least “some” actual teaching duties. Maybe just a little bit—–but SOMETHING every year in order to stay grounded in the reality of what schools are and what they are to be doing. This alone could improve the bureaucratic culture.

    • JR1123581321

      BTW, here’s another world leader who thinks your Personal Lord and Savior, Barack Hussein Obama, is a Jew-hating Israel-stabbing putz. Why don’t you flag this comment as well? Nothing can be said against Abu Hussein, amiright?

    • Disappeared4x

      There are states like New York where teacher unions, and state requirements for teacher, or librarian, certification, prohibit anyone else from doing those jobs, even “some” of those duties.

      I mention librarian credentials based on one experience while student teaching, 2004, in a new NYC HS, with a brand new library full of new books, but no student could use that library in the absence of a Certified Librarian.

      Forgive my comment FG, yours is a good suggestion, but good luck with it.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Even as a liberal, I am sensitive to the over-bureaucratization of schools. If teacher unions would preclude administrative personnel from being rotated into a little teaching, the unions would be wrong in that. For goodness sakes, a lot of problems facing teachers stem from too many chiefs who are out of touch with classroom realities.

        • Disappeared4x

          All unions negotiate work rules. And, sometimes, the union negotiates how seniority determines who gets to schedule vacation during deer hunting season. That was the GAIU circa 1976, not anything to do with teachers.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Subject change? For what?

          • Disappeared4x

            Not a subject change. The subject, and word, ‘unions’ triggered many flashbacks, none good, but the deer hunting vacation dilemma of ’76 is a neutral memory. As the rookie supervisor, I felt sad for the man who begged that I could not work out a compromise schedule due to the union rules. That one blocks the rough memories. And so does the memory of Fred’s delicious fried lake perch.

            Leaving this post. Author missing the big problem: what is being taught; and how, e.g. student centered self-learning forces the teachers to be class monitors…

        • Anthony

          When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power (your use of the label “liberal” brought to mind aforementioned thought). Here’s complimentary (if I may) consideration:

          “Consider the fate of the label ‘liberal’. Why did Americans turn away from identifying with a political tradition that had played a vital role in defeating fascism and securing postwar prosperity?…Partial answer: What changed was that astute politicians on the left stopped using the word ‘liberal’ to describe themselves. Before the change, the public saw ‘liberal’ aligned with popular Democratic programs. This is a curious case where what is individually rational, for individual politicians to avoid the liberal label, may be collectively nonrational, as they become subject as a class to being associated with an ever more unpopular label as it goes undefended. And as popular politicians avoid the liberal label, it provides an opportunity for their conservative opponents to fill the vacuum with unpopular personalities and causes. The asymmetrical linguistic war sets up a spiral in which ‘liberal’ not only is unpopular, but becomes ever more so.” (Christopher Ellis and James Stimson)

          • FriendlyGoat

            By the time we proceed through the Trump years, we are probably going to need a new word besides “liberal” to express the “other path” we should be on.

          • Anthony

            I’ve been exchanging on Disqus with a ken_lov who fleshes out sentiments giving frame to your statement (he frequents Mediaite, LawNewz, alicublog, and others). He certainly adds insight to offered perspective.

  • Anthony

    Bureaucratic bloat, hmmmmm…. Nearly all big institutions have lost trust since the 1960s, education being no exception. Indeed, critique of education and its funding reflects (rightly or wrongly) sense that government (educational institutions) no longer facilitates/safeguards economic prosperity and security. A view being mirrored by thesis in Post – a distrust rooted perhaps in a rightward shift in public opinion since the 1980s (antigovernment/educational ineffectiveness sentiments become a winning strategy once trust falls among the citizenry). In particular, “the antigovernment/educational ineffectiveness wave that forms in the 1970s was a result of political mobilization and rhetorical creativity, the economic shocks of the decade, and the changes in understanding and advocacy that flowed from them.” Bureaucratic Bloat is Eating Away at the American Education System continues to reflect both the creativity and mobilization – aided by the spiral of silence (in such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance – even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent, i.e., spiral of silence).

    To turn things around educationally K-12 and onward may need both revisiting and restructuring but not without seriously considering nexus to our corporate zeitgeist.

  • Boritz

    “offering instead indiscriminate cuts and starve-the-beast orthodoxy.”

    Puhleese. I remember Tom Foley and after him Dick Gephart effortlessly and successfully tarring any Republican idea that called for a responsible budget for education as anti-education, anti-child and hateful. The voters totally swallowed this meme during those years and well after. Instead of saying that voters are rebelling against elites and the establishment you could just as well say voters are rebelling against their own robotic acceptance of the left’s propaganda.

  • Fat_Man

    The real problem is that if we fired all of the useless administrators, the teachers would still spend their time stuffing young minds full of politically correct twaddle.

    Of course the dog that didn’t bark is the ever larger portion of education funding that is going to pay people who do nothing in the schools at all, because they are now “retired”.

    • SqueakyRat

      Politically correct twaddle. Like science, history, etc.?

      • jhp151

        Critical Race Theory or Social Justice.

        • mrdoug1

          Gender Studies, etc etc etc.

          • SqueakyRat

            You think there’s nothing worth studying there?

      • JR1123581321

        No, we mean stuff like this.

        The Left thinks indoctrinating the young is its way to permanent power. About time we started pushing back.

        • ——————————

          “About time we started pushing back.”

          By ANY means possible….

          • SqueakyRat

            There can be a legitimate point to saying “To be white is to be racist.” Every white person is advantaged by being white, no matter what their “feelings” about other races. And to the extent we whites take that advantage in our own case as natural, or deserved, or just take it for granted, we are up to our necks in centuries of racism.

          • ——————————

            Darwinism in action….

      • ronchris

        Like the falsehoods and evil smears of Howard Zinn and his ilk.

        • SqueakyRat

          Uh-huh. None of that ever happened?

  • vepxistqaosani

    It has long been standard practice for Democrats to apply Republican cuts to the most visible and important services, while leaving the actual bloat (uniformly and solely composed of their fellow Democrats) untouched. Any effort, no matter how slight, to cut the education budget at any level will immediately, first, and only be used to sack actual teaching staff. No bureaucrat anywhere has ever lost a job — or even taken a reduction in pay — due to a budget cut.

    The best we can hope for is a reduction in the rate of increase of bloat.

    This is a counsel of despair, I know — but reporters depend on bureaucrats for the leaks that make them famous. They’re their friends; expecting our mainstream press to give even neutral coverage to something that might (or should!) affect their friends is simply delusional.

    • mrdoug1

      Bingo. Nailed it. The bureaucratic bloat (wherever it occurs) has a life of its own & protects itself just like a living organism.

      • No sense making it easy for them. We should be forcing them into explicit, public, anti-child positions as often as possible instead of letting their anti-child policies pass silently by without comment.

        “Are our children being robbed?” is the watch phrase we should be constantly deploying. In the vast majority of our public school districts, the answer is yes but the majority of the public won’t believe this painful truth unless we do the detail work to prove it.

    • There’s a pretty simple fix for that, simple enough for a blog comment:
      1. Enumarate all districts
      2. Enumarate each school in each district
      3. Enumarate the staff for each school in each district as well as the shared school at district and higher levels
      4. Enumarate what each of them does
      5. Enumarate how many students they do each task for.

      Next time budget cuts are proposed, you lay out exactly which people at which tasks are supposed to get cut and how much extra burden will be pushed on the remaining staff to take up each task.

      It’s all public information. It all could be done. Heck, I run a startup devoted to doing that sort of thing so this is actually on my to do list. I’m actually doing number one on the list right now but getting a product out to support budget cutting politicians so they don’t get sabotaged by the deep state in the way you describe is only going to happen in the near future if I get funding for it.

      So are you interested in actually fixing the problem?

  • You denounce Starve The Beast but offer nothing. Some beasts need starving. Or shooting.

  • stevewfromford

    The best thing Trump could start his administration with is rescinding the executive orders that allow public employees to unionize and applying this to any state or municipal organization that receives federal government funding.
    That alone would eliminate much of the organized push for bigger bureaucracy.

    • JR1123581321

      Agree 100%. As long as you have public service unions, you will never get an efficient government. It’s as simple as that.

  • …. offering instead indiscriminate cuts and starve-the-beast orthodoxy demanding that educators and parents actually set rational and workable priorities, instead of saying it’s ALL important (to perpetuate the Blue Model) “for the children”.

    Edited to illustrate the true objective of the critics.

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