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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