School & District Management

Districts’ Budgets Swell to Accommodate a Surge in Non-Teaching Staff

By Denisa R. Superville — August 13, 2014 3 min read
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Between 1970 and 2010, the number of employees in the nation’s schools grew by a whopping 84 percent. At the same time, the number of non-teaching staff members expanded by 130 percent to more than 3 million —or about half of public school districts’ staff.

But who is counted among the “non-teaching” staff? What do they do? And what has led to the exponential surge in this staffing category at a rate that has outpaced even the growth of teachers and students?

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Washington-based education think tank, took a look in a report it released Wednesday, “The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach,” by Matthew Richmond.

Who makes up the non-teaching staff? It’s a category that can include teacher aides, guidance counselors, librarians, school counselors, custodians, food-service personnel, mechanics, and even transportation workers.

The lion’s share of non-teaching staff members’ growth has been in teacher aides, a group that was practically nonexistent in 1970, making up just 1.7 percent of all district staff then, but climbing to represent 11.8 percent of all staff by 2010.

Richmond posits that part of the explanation for the growth in the non-instructional staff lies in a slew of legislation expanding students’ education rights: the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (now known as the Individual with Disabilities Act) expanding educational access for children with disabilities; Title IX barring sex-based discrimination in educational programs; the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 establishing federal policy for bilingual education; and the Gifted and Talented Children’s Education Act of 1978. Since then, a focus on drug prevention, health and other special services has continued that growth.

The districts’ response to many of these policies has been to hire more teaching and non-teaching staff (including aides to assist in the classroom, but also support staff such as speech pathologists, psychologists, and nurses) to accommodate students’ needs.

The report also notes that the United States spends more on average to compensate teachers and non-teachers when compared with other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. And the United States is also spending more to pay for non-teachers than all other OECD countries, with the exception of Denmark.

The rise in the non-teaching staff is by no means uniform across the country and even within states, the report notes. States with large urban populations tended to have a lower staff-to-student ratio than states with smaller urban populations.

In all but five states, the non-teaching staff increased between 1986 and 2010, with the largest increases seen in Vermont, the report notes. There, the numbers went from 49 non-teaching personnel per 1,000 students in 1986 to 104 per 1,000 students in 2010. On the other end of the scale, South Carolina’s non-teaching staff went from 43 per 1,000 students in 1986 to 28 per 1,000 students in 2010.

On the district level, teacher aides were the largest drivers of the growth in the non-teaching category. The growth in the rural district non-teaching staff outpaced that of urban districts. Rural districts also tended to have more staff per pupil, in general, than their urban counterparts.

For example, in 1993, city schools averaged 51.7 non-teaching staff members per 1,000 students, growing only slightly to 56.6 by 2010. In rural schools, however, the growth was much more pronounced, with an increase from 59.6 staff members per 1,000 students in 1993 to 73.8 in 2010.

One reason why urban areas may have posted lower non-teaching-staff-per-student ratios, some told the Fordham Institute, was cuts to transportation services, an option not available to many rural districts. Additionally, urban districts can capitalize on their density and share personnel within districts and across districts. The density also allows them to tap into a deeper talent pool.

Some districts and experts have pointed toward the growth in the special needs student population to explain the surge in the number of teacher aides, but Richmond concludes that while there is a positive correlation between the increasing number of special needs students enrolled in public schools and the staff increases, no one reason can explain the trend.

The report restrains from opining on whether the growth has been a good development or a bad one; but it does challenge school districts to re-examine their structures for greater efficiencies. It also urges creativity in considering staffing options and urges districts to evaluate the necessity and cost-benefits of adding more staff to the payroll.

Source: “The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.