Data raise questions about school staffing – but don’t answer them

Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for the percentage of school employees who are teachers and near the top for the percentage who provide “support services,” according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

I don’t know if those stats are perfectly accurate, but they have become a handy talking point for state legislators who claim to want to raise teacher salaries but don’t want to spend any more money.

Lawmakers have pointed to data, reported to the U.S. Department of Education by the states, that indicate only 37.7 percent of Indiana school employees are teachers. The implication is that teachers could be paid more if only there weren’t so many other school employees.

The National Center for Education Statistics is a reliable and widely cited source. The figure is based on 2015 data, the latest available. Only Ohio, at 31.5 percent, has a lower percentage of school employees who are teachers. The national average is just under half.

Who are all those non-teaching school employees in Indiana?

Critics of public schools will claim they reflect “administrative bloat.” But according to the NCES figures, only 4 percent of Indiana school employees are categorized as district administrators and administrative staff, less than the national average.

But 25.8 percent fall in the category of “other support services staff.” That includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, security staff and other nonprofessional employees. Only one state – Ohio, again — has a higher percentage.

Indiana also ranks high – 12.3 percent of employees – for “student support services staff,” which includes attendance officers, nurses and aides, psychologists, speech pathologists and social workers. Combine those two categories, and Indiana employs as many support services employees as teachers.

I’d wondered if Indiana held down its teacher numbers by hiring lots of teacher aides, who cost considerably less than certified teachers. But Indiana’s percentage of school employees who are instructional aides – 11.1 percent – is about average.

Note that these figures are for the number of employees, not their cost. Maybe Indiana employs more support staff but pays them less. Maybe we just don’t hire enough teachers. Indiana’s student-to-teacher ratio is above average, according to a National Education Association report.

States also may also misclassify some staff or classify them differently. They get precise directions from the feds on how to report the numbers, but do they follow them?

“There are known reporting inconsistencies,” Tom Snyder, director of the annual reports and information staff for the NCES, told me by email. Nevada, for example, reports that 86 percent of its school employees are teachers. But it says its schools employ no administrative support staff, library assistants or instructional aides. That seems unlikely.

Data that suggest Indiana schools employ a lot of nonteachers are perplexing, because Indiana is so reliably average in most things like this. They are worth a closer look, and advocates for improved school funding will have to come to terms with the numbers. But we also know that Indiana school funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation and that the state’s private-school voucher program is claiming a growing share of the school-funding pot.

If legislators really want to raise teacher pay, they should be looking at those areas too.

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