Administrators Rebut Bennett’s Critique of Burgeoning Bureaucratic ‘Blob’

By William Montague — September 09, 1987 4 min read
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School administrators have launched a counterattack against critics--especially U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett--who claim that an uncontrollable “blob” of bureaucrats is devouring money that would be better spent in the classroom.

Citing a recent study, spokesmen for two major administrators’ groups say that Mr. Bennett erred earlier this year when he blamed an ever-growing bureaucracy for the fact that a smaller percentage of each education dollar is now being spent in the classroom than was the case 20 years ago.

While administrative expenses appear to have increased faster than classroom costs during that time, they argue, that trend reflects basic changes in educational practice, as well as some misleading accounting procedures.

Moreover, argues a recent article in the magazine Executive Educator, the number of school bureaucrats looks fairly modest when public education is compared with commercial enterprises, such as banking and data processing, and with colleges and proprietary schools.

According to the article, administrators account for 6.6 percent of all public-school employees, compared with 30 percent in banking and 12.2 percent in colleges and universities.

The ‘Blob’ Strikes Back

At a recent news conference, officials from the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators lambasted Mr. Bennett for the widely publicized remarks he made last February, which included a reference to the educational bureaucracy as a “blob.”

The Secretary cited statistics showing that while instructional costs increased by 67.7 percent between 1960 and 1980, administrative costs more than doubled during that same period.

“While many administrators and principals are doing good work, the question is: Do we really need all of them?” Mr. Bennett asked them.

Administrators immediately took issue with him, and said he was misinterpreting the statistical data. As a percentage of the nation’s total education budget, administrative costs rose by only four-tenths of one percent in 20 years, spokesmen for the groups noted.

They attributed that modest rise to the dramatic increase in programs--many of them federally mandated--that serve the handi8capped, the disadvantaged, and other special groups of students. Such programs often carry a heavy burden of administrative red tape, they noted.

At their August press briefing, officials of the two administrators’ groups offered a recent study by the Educational Research Service to buttress their arguments. The report examined spending trends over the past 25 years and concluded that “school expenditures for administration ... have not been increasing at the expense of ... instruction.”

“We think this will clear the air in terms of some of the nonsense that’s being stated that all we have to do is eliminate education administration in order to pay for reforms,” said Thomas Shannon, the nsba’s executive director.

Eliminating the paychecks of every central-office administrator in the country would only save enough money to reduce the average class size by one student, the ers study noted.

Growth an Illusion?

In any case, the study contended, much of the reported bureaucratic growth is illusory. Over the past two decades, it said, many states have altered their accounting systems, and now consider school principals’ offices to be an administrative expense, rather than an instructional one.

The highest rates of spending growth, the report continued, have been in other areas, especially retirement plans and other fringe benefits, mostly for teachers. Such “fixed charges,” the ers concluded, rose from 7.4 percent of total spending in 1960 to 13.6 percent in 1980.

“Those are instructional costs,” argued Bruce Hunter, associate director of the aasa “Teachers have opted for more generous pensions, more generous health plans as part of their total compensation. And the costs have risen dramatically.”

An area of explosive growth, the ers reported, has been the number of instructional personnel, such as librarians, counselors, and curriculum planners, who do not work in the classroom. This section of the education workforce grew by 405 percent between 1960 and 1984, according to the study.

This trend was also noted in a 1984 report by Pelavin Associates, a Washington consulting firm. That study, which was cited by Secretary Bennett as evidence of the growing “blob,” concluded that “schoolchildren now receive educational services from a professional staff that is much more diverse than in previous years.”

But according to Bruce Carnes, the Education Department’s deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, much of that diversity is simply the “blob” in disguise.

The educational bureaucracy, he said, is trying to “count itself out of existence,” by defining many administrative employees, such as curriculum planners, as instructional staff.

“The fact is that more money is going to people who are not in the classroom than to people who are,” he said. “That is the essential point.”

But Mr. Hunter of the aasa countered that “if they want to call that the blob, they’d better inspect their own rhetoric.” The growth in non-classroom specialists, he said, has been fueled by demands for increased accountability and stronger curricula--key goals championed by Mr. Bennett and other federal policymakers.

“There is a considerable growth for which we in the federal government must take some responsibility,” Mr. Carnes acknowledged. But the Reagan Administration, he said, has attempted to limit federal paperwork demands. “We have tried to reduce our own blob,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 1987 edition of Education Week as Administrators Rebut Bennett’s Critique of Burgeoning Bureaucratic ‘Blob’

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