Animated chart of the day: Public school enrollment, staff, and inflation-adjusted cost per pupil, 1970 to 2017

The animated “bar chart race” visualization above is an updated version of this visualization from a year ago and shows the growth over nearly the last 50 years in: a) the number of students enrolled in public schools (K-12), b) the number of public school teachers, c) the number of non-teaching public school staff (administrators, principals, assistant principals, support staff, librarians, guidance counselors, and instructional aides), and d) the inflation-adjusted cost of public school education per pupil, all from 1970 to 2017. All of the figures shown in the animated chart are the percent of 1970 values. Here are some observations:

1. Between 1970 and 1999 public school enrollment increased by only 2.5%. And yet during that same 30-year period the number of non-teaching public shool staff doubled as did the real cost per public school student.

2. Over the entire 1970-2017 (most recent year available) period, the increase in the number of students attending US public schools increased only 10.4% from 45.9 million to 50.7 million. From 1970 to the mid-1980s, public school enrollment decreased by nearly 6.5 million students (and by 14%) before rebounding by 1997 to the 1970 level of about 46 million students and then increasing steadily to more than 50 million by 2013.

3. In comparison, the number of public school teachers increased by 57.2% between 1970 and 2017 from about 2 million to 3.17 million, which reduced the pupil-to-teacher ratio by 30%, from almost 23-to-1 in 1970 to below 16-to-1 in 2017.

4. Over the same period, the number of non-teaching staff at public schools more than doubled, increasing by 151% from 1.34 million in 1970 to 3.375 million in 2017. Interestingly, while the number of public school teachers was flat between 1996 and 2016, the number of non-teaching staff continued to grow and by 2015 there were more non-teaching staff than teachers for the first time and that gap grew even larger in 2017 (see chart below).

5. As a direct result of public school staff (both teachers and non-teachers) growing so much greater (57% and 157% respectively) than the increase in public school students (10.4%) between 1970 and 2017, the inflation-adjusted cost of educating a student in US public schools increased by 154% between 1970 and 2017, from $5,037 to $12,794.

5. With the 150% inflation-adjusted increase in spending per public school pupil and the 30% reduction in the pupil-to-teacher since 1970, have there been any demonstrable educational improvements in student test scores? Unfortunately, No. While not shown in the animated chart above, this Department of Education report found that “Average reading and mathematics achievement for 17-year-olds did not change significantly between the early 1970s and 2012 or between 2008 and 2012.” (Although the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) achievement results are for students in both private and public schools, private school enrollment represents less than 9% of students in grades 9-12.) For example, the NAEP average reading score of 285 in 1971 was not significantly different from the 287 average score in 2015. Likewise, the 304 average score for the NAEP math assessment in 1971 was not significantly different from the 306 average score in 2015.

Bottom Line: Despite the significant increase between 1970 and 2017 in the number of public school teachers (57%) and non-teaching staff (151%) relative to the 10.4% increase in students, the significant 30% decrease in the pupil-to-teacher ratio in public schools and the significant 154% increase in inflation-adjusted spending per pupil attending public schools over that period, there was basically no change in academic achievement. More spending + more teachers + more administrators + no change in education outcomes = a failing public school monopoly that benefits entrenched unionized teachers who vigorously try to squash competition from charter schools and educational choice at the expense of taxpayers, parents, and students.

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