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Every society has people of limited ability who need employment and historically many of these folk worked the land. It was a simple and effective solution: you don’t have to be especially smart, even industrious, to herd cows, pick fruit or otherwise help put food on somebody’s table. Nor did society have to spend millions to train farm workers and provide them with modern-day benefits. Alas, thanks to the mechanization of agriculture and the growth of a world-wide economy, this handy employment option is dwindling. In 1840 the US population was about 17 million and approximately 9 million worked in agriculture (69%). By 1900 population rose to 76 million but the percent in agriculture fell to 58%, still lots and lots of jobs. By 1930, the proportion in agriculture had declined to 21% and by 1990, it was 2.6%. There are now 3 million employed in farming, one-third the figure of 1840.
So, where can we find gainful employment for those who once milked cows? The glib answer is “send them to college” where, supposedly, they will be trained to enter today’s high-tech economy. Pure fantasy—to be blunt, the millions with IQ’s below 90 are not going to be computer programmers or IT consultants no matter how hard they are pushed. Yet, they need some field where they can earn decent livelihoods.
K-12 education is today’s alternative and no matter how measured, the US spends generously and the upward trend seems unstoppable. In fact, unlike what occurs in the private sector, the worse the results the greater the spending.
Less obvious than just raw spending data is how this money is spent—the old vision of a school with some teachers, a few administrators and a custodian is now obsolete. Schools are now the place for those who once milked cows. A recent publication of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The Hidden Half: School Employees who Don’t Teach by Matthew Richmond provides the details. Since 1970 the number of non-teaching staff (particularly teacher aides, a job category that did not exist in 1950) has increased by 130%, far out-pacing the hiring of teachers. In fact, these so-called para-professionals now comprise half of the public school’s workforce, and consume one-quarter of the budget. Between 1950 and 2012, non-teaching positions expanded by some 702% while the student population grew only by 96%, all the while educational outcomes remained flat.
These figures only begin to tell the story since many school workers are not counted as “educators.” For example, in 2008/09 (the latest figures available) New York City employ 5,055 “school safety agents,” the fifth largest policy force in the country, larger than the police force of Washington DC. Further add others servicing surveillance equipment, the thousands of street crossing guards and workers who those drive and maintain school buses run by private contractors. Chicago recently hired 100 “Safe Passage” workers who escort students to school in crime-ridden neighborhoods. The governor has also pledged to hire 600 more such guardians once funds become available.
And let’s not forget how schools must now pay closer attention to disabled students, an exceedingly labor intensive task. Schools are also now responsible for services such as serving meals and psychological counseling that previously scarcely existed. It is also arguable that the weakening of teacher power over classroom discipline has reduced class size and further added positions to handle disruptive students and these helpers often only need the most minimal qualifications.
More is involved here that just generic bureaucratic bloat. Most clearly, this expansion is a god-send to various public sector unions, everything from the big teachers’ unions to those who organize food service workers, security guards, even the street crossing monitors. This is not an issue of unionization per se. This growth brings power to public sector unions that, unlike their private sector brethren, have a clear stake in expanding government.
Now, thanks to this expansion of dues-paying members, Progressive candidates will be able to raise even more funds and count on armies of Election Day “volunteers.” (A similar pattern is occurring in the public healthcare sector where unions can deliver lots of cash and huge blocks of docile voters.). Of the utmost importance, this political clout will be most evident in low-turnout primaries—no small matter since most big cities are one-party—given that that those whose livelihood depends on government largess are the most motivated voters here. This electoral cloud will be even greater if cities require teachers, administrators and other “educators” to live within city boundaries. New York City’s current Mayor, the Progressive Bill DeBlasio may well be the harbinger of office holders to come as “educators” come to dominate urban electorates.
Less obvious than electoral consequences will be the promotion of policies necessary to keep schools filled with students independent of actual learning, a formidable problem as residents (including under-class blacks) move to the suburbs. Think Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Camden, NJ, Newark, NJ, Philadelphia, and Rochester, NY among several others.
Happily, de-population can be surmounted by filling schools with the children of immigrants, the more troubling the better and this includes illegals. Ever wonder why so many cities declare themselves to be sanctuaries for illegals or refuse to cooperate with Washington in enforcing immigration laws?
Not only does this newly found warm body automatically generate revenue, even if the body seldom shows up, but these new arrivals quickly generate a support staff to address student shortcomings. School superintendents will rightly claim that their schools now need bi-lingual aides, no small expenditure in many urban areas where schools often have students speaking a dozen or more languages. Further add the need for multi-lingual staff to reach out to the parents of these new-comers. Outsiders seldom grasp the financial enormity of educating an immigrant population. Consider the mission statement from the Big Apple’s Department of Education’s Translation and Interpretation (T &I) unit:
Chancellor’s Regulation A-663 establishes procedures for ensuring that LEP parents are provided with a meaningful opportunity to participate in and have access to programs and services critical to their child’s education. Chancellor’s Regulation A-663 requires language services in the nine most common languages other than English spoken by parents of New York City school children. Based on the DOE’s Home Language Identification Survey these languages are Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu (hereinafter referred to as the “covered languages”). These languages, including English, account for over 95% of student households. Support in additional languages is available through contracted vendors.
In practice, this means translation assistance with junior’s disciplinary problems, his health and safety, access to special programs, and so on. The T & I unit is even given legal responsibility to monitor the Multicultural Welcoming Posters in over 1700 schools, among multiple other duties.
Then add those skilled at multicultural outreach so the school staff can treat their Creole Haitian students in a culturally sensitive way. And what about obtaining teaching material relevant to youngsters who only know life in rural Guatemala? I’ll spare the details but I’d guess that a “truly” multicultural school would require far more staff than students (see here) and this is never-ending as immigration pattern shift.
And since many of these non-English speaking students have scant regard to school learning, retention becomes critical and, yet one more time, the Beast grows. An entire village probably cannot get Juan to learn but “this village” will be charged with keeping him in school, and who can argue with preventing drop-outs?
Lastly, the education industry, like so many other state bureaucracies, has a stake in sustaining deep dependency on government while weakening the family. To wit, prominent educators are now talking about schools as if they were surrogate families and the mission creep seems unstoppable. The creep is most visible in the growing movement for universal “quality” pre-school (that is, lots of credentialed aides) despite the shortcomings of Head Start. Now mothers who struggle as parents will be hired to look after the children of strangers provided they can obtain a credential from a local community college. Extensive school lunch and breakfast programs are already the norm in many schools and Washington itself is pushing these food programs (what do you expect from a government headed by a former community organizer?).
Few associate the term “homeless” to youngsters attending school, but “homeless student” now infuses the “education problem” agenda. One estimate put the national figure of homeless students at 1.7 million, larger than the largest American school district and according to the National Center for Homeless Education (yes, such a thing exists) this figure is now rising by 10% a year. And there is also the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington that is pushing a legislative agenda to help such at-risk youth. Many urban schools will soon resemble boarding schools if not hotels to meet the needs of students whose parents occasionally forget to pick them up.
In conclusion, let me put it this way. When millions toiled in agriculture the consequences were higher consumer prices and lots of back-breaking dangerous work. Though a few might celebrate this rustic life—yeomen farmers—no political imperative existed to reverse mechanization and the resultant agricultural unemployment (this had to wait until Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid concerts). Certainly nobody worried that unemployed farm laborers would re-locate to cities and become an urban pox.
Today’s education is profoundly different—“investing in the children” is sacrosanct, often viewed as the cure-all for all our woes, and candidates who hints of slimming down the beast are doomed. It is no accident that education remains an antiquated labor-intensive industry where, ironically, the introduction of technology only creates more jobs. Nor is it an industry that has responded well to calls for privatization so as to reduce costs. It is the bureaucratic Beast that can only grow and with this growth comes even more power to today’s Left.
One final note. We are not suggesting that all these newly hired workers be fired. After all, what are the alternatives? Permanent welfare dependency? Forcing private industry to hire unnecessary workers as was true in communist nations? All and all, people need jobs and categorizing those who once toiled in agriculture as “educators” may be the only sensible option.
Robert Weissberg is a New Yorker with an AB from Bard College and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin Madison. He has taught political science at Cornell University, the University of Illinois-Urbana and New York University and has authored eleven books and numerous articles in professional journals. A version of this paper was given at the seventh annual meeting of The Mencken Club.