Do Dollars Equal Scholars?

Americans are compelled to pay almost $300 billion every year for public education, equivalent to about $1,100 from each and every citizen. Spending on public education in Michigan alone has soared by 463 percent since 1970. Despite these enormous expenditures, however, a surprisingly small percentage actually pays for classroom instruction. In fact, a significant portion of it goes to pay the salaries and benefits of employees who never set foot in a classroom.

The California-based Education Intelligence Agency’s (EIA) March 1998 report, One Yard Below: Education Statistics from a Different Angle, revealed that an average of 83 percent of all education expenditures goes toward the salaries and benefits of "education employees." And according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, some of Michigan’s school districts spend as much as 89 percent of their state foundation grant on "employee salaries and benefits." But an employee is not necessarily a teacher.

EIA discovered that more than 53 percent of all education employees in Michigan are actually nonteachers, such as clerical, maintenance, and administrative staff. In fact, as the numbers of students and teachers have decreased over the past 25 years, the ratio of nonteachers to teachers has shot up by an astounding 75 percent—the fastest growth in the nation. As a result, Michigan employs the second largest percentage of nonteachers in education.

As for teachers themselves, Michigan’s pedagogues placed third behind those of Connecticut and Alaska, with an average salary just over $49,000 per year. However, when adjusted for the cost of living, Michigan is the highest teacher salary state in the country.

First-year teachers are doing exceptionally well in Michigan. Although the average starting salary is just under $26,000 statewide, EIA calculated that beginning teachers in Michigan have a better chance of reaching the state average of $49,000 in a shorter period of time than do teachers in any other state, except Ohio where salaries are much lower. Financially, Michigan is the ideal state for anyone to begin a career as a public school teacher.

Additionally, for every dollar paid to Michigan teachers in salary, they receive on average 36.3 cents in benefits—or two-tenths of a cent less than West Virginia, the state with the top salary-to-benefit ratio. Noting Michigan’s unusual status of being at the top in salaries and near the top in benefits, EIA analysts say, "it’s hard to argue against the notion that Michigan teachers are doing extremely well."

Certainly the teacher is the one adult—other than a parent or guardian—who can profoundly influence a child’s life; and teachers ought to be well compensated for demonstrated excellence in the classroom. Some of our very best teachers may even be underpaid. But at the same time, we must recognize that dollars for salaries and benefits (especially for nonteachers) are dollars that can’t go for other areas of need, such as textbooks, classroom supplies, or physical facilities.

The numbers suggest the kind of questions Michigan citizens should be asking of their public schools: Why haven’t high salaries in the schools translated into better student performance? Why should the growth of nonteaching personnel in Michigan schools be faster than that of any other state? Why can’t we be tops in quality if we’re tops in quantity—quantity of dollars, that is? These questions should not only be asked, they should be answered—by the education establishment that often seems to put union jobs ahead of children.

The fact is that dollars are not sufficient by themselves to buy quality. More employees at higher salaries don’t automatically mean better student test scores. And just as surely, for those who cry the loudest about resources—the employee unions—it doesn’t matter how many dollars we spend or how many people we employ in the public schools. It will never be enough.

It is becoming ever more obvious that comprehensive, systemic change is needed in education. The factor that correlates most strongly with student performance, according to virtually every study, is parental involvement. That’s why the most promising reforms for improving education are not the ones that call for more money, but rather the ones that encourage parents to take education more seriously, that empower parents with greater choice and responsibility, and that allow teachers and schools to treat parents as customers instead of as captives with deep pockets.

Education reform does not have to come at the expense of the many wonderful teachers in public education. But it must recognize that the road to better schools is not paved with the almighty dollar.