On the thread following Rob's post last week about the rapidly declining membership numbers of the National Education Association, I noted -- in response to Diane's question about how much of the decline was attributable to pink slips -- that, while the seniority-based layoffs that prevail throughout much of the country are indefensible, there is a good case to be made that public school teachers have actually been overhired because of political, rather than educational considerations (primarily powerful teachers unions pulling out every stop to swell their ranks).
In today's Wall Street Journal, the Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson makes a similar argument. And the numbers he marshals in its service are eye-opening:
... Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers' aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.
... If the additional three million public-school employees we've hired have helped students learn, the nation may be better off economically.
To find out if that's true, we can look at the "long-term trends" of 17-year-olds on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress. These tests, first administered four decades ago, show stagnation in reading and math and a decline in science. Scores for black and Hispanic students have improved somewhat, but the scores of white students (still the majority) are flat overall, and large demographic gaps persist. Graduation rates have also stagnated or fallen. So a doubling in staff size and more than a doubling in cost have done little to improve academic outcomes.
... The implication of these facts is clear: America's public schools have warehoused three million people in jobs that do little to improve student achievement—people who would be working productively in the private sector if that extra $210 billion were not taxed out of the economy each year.
The issue is not that "those who can't, teach." Anyone who's ever had a great instructor knows that. The issue is, far too frequently, that those who can't become public employees.