Where Have Virginia’s Education Dollars Been Going?

Left out in the cold?

by James A. Bacon

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has published data showing that the number of administrators and other non-teaching staff surged in Virginia between 1992 and 2009 by 100%, far outpacing the 22% increase in the number of students over the same period.

Had administrative overhead grown no faster than the increase in student enrollment, the savings to Virginia school systems would amount to $2.1 billion a year. That’s serious money!

The data appears to be a stunning indictment of runaway costs in Virginia’s educational system. States a Friedman Foundation press release: “Virginia far outpaced other states with the number of excessive personnel outside the classroom with 60,737 more non-teaching staff than teachers, followed by Ohio with 19,040 more non-teaching personnel than teachers.”

The ratio of students to non-teaching staff in FY 2009 was 9.4 to one in Virginia — the lowest ratio in the country, save Vermont (meaning more non-teachers per student), and far lower than the national average of 15.9. Conversely, the student-teacher ratio, 17.3 to one, was significantly higher than the 15.3 national average.

Indeed, the results are so extraordinarily bad that Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, suggested that the numbers, which came from the National Center for Education Statistics, might be inaccurate.

“There’s a clearly a disconnect here,” Pyle told the Washington Times last week.  “We don’t think there’s been some sudden change in terms of hiring practices in our school divisions. In fact, in more recent years, there’s been an increased focus on the classroom as opposed to the central office. … Something clearly is amiss here, and our challenge is to get to the bottom of it.”

I’m keeping an open mind here. Virginia is such an outlier that the statistics may be flawed. On the other hand, the emphasis on channeling resources into the classroom is a recent policy of the McDonnell administration. The numbers cited in the study carry through 2009, ending before McDonnell took office.

I would be careful before blowing off the numbers as a statistical error. The state Standards of Quality (SOQ), an arcane method for calculating minimum inputs for educational quality, have driven educational spending higher for years. Educational spending has been out of control, and much of that spending has gone to administrators and non-teacher support staff.

To get to the bottom of the issue, I have submitted contacted both the Department of Education and the study author, Benjamin Scafidi, for comments on the accuracy of the statistics. I will report back if I hear from them.

Update: Pyle called back this afternoon. He says the DOE is pretty confident that the outlier results for Virginia reflect a data error. Trends for the commonwealth were consistent with those of other states — better than some, worse than others — until 2005. Then the trend shot through the roof. “We have a good idea of what happened,” he said. “Positions that should have been mapped to instructional categories were mapped to administrative categories. Now we have to find out why.”

The Virginia DOE is checking to see if there were any changes in federal instructions on how to submit the data, how those changes might have been interpreted, and how they might have been applied.

Update: It appears that DOE has experienced other problems reporting data to Uncle Sam. According to this Times-Dispatch Politifact article, the National Center for Educational Statistics showed that Virginia’s student-teacher ratio had soared between 2005-2006 and 2009-2010. Pyle told Politifact that the data had been coded incorrectly. Hat tip: Michael Cassidy. Dudes, we need to get the data in. Otherwise, we’ll be drawing a lot of unfounded public policy conclusions!

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12 responses to “Where Have Virginia’s Education Dollars Been Going?”

  1. Breckinridge Avatar

    Hey, wait — don’t call the PR flacks in the school systems. Each and every division it seems has such a person now, if not an entire communications team. If you call them, they will hire more people to get to the bottom of this….or pay a consultant. Perhaps if we stopped calling and quoting them, they’d be dismissed and the money spent on a teacher instead….

  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    And of course there are localities that have outside contract lobbyists, often well-known Richmond firms, for BOTH the local government and the school system. No kidding. One lobbyist for the city manager and another one for the school superintendent. Both of whom also have press flacks. I mean really, are you actually surprised by how little money gets to the classroom?

  3. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    “There’s a clearly a disconnect here,” (Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education) told the Washington Times last week. “We don’t think there’s been some sudden change in terms of hiring practices in our school divisions. In fact, in more recent years, there’s been an increased focus on the classroom as opposed to the central office. … Something clearly is amiss here, and our challenge is to get to the bottom of it.”

    “Our challenge is to get to the bottom of this.” The statement’s outrageous.

    Any well organization would have these figures instantly available. Those in charge would know those figures backwards and forwards, and be able to discuss them and their consequences at length. The constant tracking and assessment of these numbers, their ratios, and interaction, are essential to performance. They’re a key metric for those in charge to understand and control cost and maximize results.

    Obviously here nobody’s in charge! In any well run company, people would be fired. Why not here? Guess it’s just business as usual in the world of public education. After all, it’s only hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money that are being wasting, along with the lives of our children.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Correction – No, its only $2.1 billion a year wasted, should numbers be correct.

  4. Richard Avatar

    Of course when a lobbying/research organization already knows the answers, its studies will support the expected answer. Such an organization looks for data that supports its positions and ignores data that does not. It looks to me like this organization already knows the answer it wants, and so any data it provides will be suspect. In the various studies from this organization you have so assiduously promoted, I don’t recall any that describe any that discuss the problems of school choice – good phrase btw – “choice.” However, I do appreciate your bringing up the issues, which are important – just wish it was done in a more balanced way.

    Our schools have their problems, as does any organization that provides so many services to individuals and society, but let’s not “throw out the baby with the bath water,” especially on the basis of studies by organizations that will literally profit from the changes they advocate.

  5. Richard, it is important to note that, whatever ideological biases the author of this study may have, the study was national in scope. Dr. Scafidi was not focusing on public policy in Virginia. As a professor from a Georgia university, he has no Virginia-specific political axes to grind. In other words, one cannot argue that he was biased to generate results that indicts *Virginia’s* educational system. Assuming his data is accurate, I would describe his findings as alarming.

    1. Richard Avatar

      Fair enough. It is alarming if true, although we don’t know the context.
      It would be interesting for someone to look behind the data though. In this internet world data is here, there and everywhere, and I find it hard to find it credible unless I know the source. This is one source I don’t find credible at this point. I do find you credible, but I don’t think you’re saying that you stand behind the data, only that this interesting report (which happens to be consistent with your own beliefs) that happened to find its way to your in-box.

      1. Check the update to this post. The Virginia DOE thinks that it may have passed along inaccurate data to the feds. Thus, the situation may not be as bad as it seems. Two conclusions: (1) Scafidi did not misuse the data; (2) Virginia’s situation is not as bad as it appears.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Jim –

          How does, or might, this impact your chart in Spending Our Way to Failure Article?

          1. The number of total school employees will not change — it has still way outpaced student enrollment. But the balance between teachers and administators will not look quite so lopsided.

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Its odd how folks who criticize failing government programs are so often accused of being anti-government. Indeed of trying to destroy government.

    How odd. That someone who demands that public schools do their job are always trying to damage public schools, even trying to shut them down.

    Is not the reverse often the case. That critics want public schools to work? Want them to succeed? Want for their students good education? And so step out into a public place and energetically demand it. Why are they attacked to the very thing they are trying to make work for all citizens?

    And why is it that those who are so eager for big government so rarely insist on good government? Why are they so permissive of bad government?

    Why indeed are they so unwilling to admit to bad government when confronted with overwhelming evidence of it, much less address its abject failures and so cure the harm those failures inflict on their fellow citizens?

  7. larryg Avatar

    we’ve been through a similar drill … and he’s how it shook out. It has to do with maintenance and operations (rather than instruction or administration).

    how does this get classified?

    are the people that perform maintenance and operations school employees or contractors?

    If you look at MOST school operations – the total of administrative, maintenance and operations personnel may well be about equal to the number of instructional personnel.

    It’s a myth that you can run schools with ONLY teachers.

    it takes a whale of a lot of non-teachers to maintain and operate schools.

    you have the janitorial… the folks that fix the HVAC and plumbing… cafeteria, buses (drivers and repair people), parking lots, grounds, electricians, IT support, etc, etc.

    so what I’d suggest is that any report that you’d read – make sure that all employees and their functions are accounted for – THEN I might be more interested in the “study” if it STILL shows a ratio problem.

    and here’s one for Va that I think might be interesting. The number of SOL instructional personnel vs the number of non-SOL instructional personnel ( employees who are funded locally and are not funded by the state).

    Let’s get the data straight first before we launch prematurely into anti-govt blather.

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