The Cost of Schools

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(HOST) As the legislature reviews the cost of doing state business, commentator John McClaughry reflects on a study of government employment patterns that offers some provocative statistics.

(McClaughry) The ever-valuable Vermont Economy Newsletter has recently published a very revealing study of government employment in Vermont. It’s based on the most recent Census Bureau surveys, and it explains a lot about Vermont’s very high tax rates.

Sixty percent of all state and local government employees work in the K-12 public educational system. Vermont features 325 Full Time Equivalent public education employees per 10,000 population. This puts Vermont way out in front of all the other states and 50 percent above the national average of 222. Says the newsletter, “if Vermont’s level of employment in K-12 education was at the U. S. level, the savings to taxpayers in payroll costs alone (not including benefits) would be $171 million.”

When it comes to non-education public employees, only three states have fewer employees than Vermont. Taken together, these figures suggest that our K-12 public schools are absolutely bloated with costly employees, while our state and municipal governments are running very tight ships. “Clearly,” writes the newsletter, “education staffing levels are the drivers of Vermont’s state and local government employment growth.”

Is this school employment growth caused by more kids to educate? Nationally, public school enrollments were up about four percent over that period. Vermont’s enrollments were down by five percent. One might, perhaps, justify such expenditure trends by pointing to superior educational outcomes. Maybe we’re willing to pay more for a high quality product. But as VEN showed in an earlier analysis, Vermont’s K-12 educational results are about the same as those of white children throughout the nation – a fair comparison since Vermont has so few non-white students.

Add this up, and we get public school payrolls mushrooming, while educational results remain average and the number of pupils falls. We also get steadily escalating property tax bills to support this increasingly expensive government monopoly system.

The most obvious solution to this problem, and the most parent- and pupil-friendly, is universal school choice. Competition among public and independent providers would give education consumers what they want, not what the government thinks is good for them. And independent schools, especially those operated by religious bodies, are almost always less expensive than overstaffed public schools.

Instead of taking the obvious steps to curb the mushrooming costs of the nation’s most labor intensive public education system, the new and more liberal legislature will most likely protect the public school monopoly, create multitown governance units, advance the interests of the teachers’ union and embark on a renewed effort to create universal preschools. With all due respect, the advocates of such an agenda badly need a reality check.

This is John McClaughry. Thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allan Institute, a Vermont policy, research and education organization. He spoke from our studio at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.

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