Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In education, one size doesn't fit all

There’s another statistic out there lawmakers are paying attention to and using as a justification for cutting funding for public schools.

 It’s from the Legislative Budget Board and shows that Texas has more employees per student than any other state in the country. According to the LBB, Texas has 273 employees for every 10,000 students. That’s substantially higher than California, which has 193 employees per 10,000 students.

Some lawmakers have pointed to that and intimated that if California can get by with fewer people, why can’t we? Well, right off the top of my head, I think the first question we should ask ourselves is do we really want to model our public education system after California’s?

But I figured we need some research to back up a defense of that number beyond bashing California. So here it is. Yes, we do have more employees per student than California. The answer is largely due to our sheer geographical size and the fact that so much of Texas is sparsely populated, making small schools a necessity. Smaller schools are more expensive to operate per student than large schools. That’s just an economic fact.

For example, Texas has only nine high schools in the entire state with a population of 3,500 or more. And only four of those schools – Elsik High and Hastings High, both in Alief ISD, North Shore Senior High in Galena Park ISD, and Skyline High in Dallas ISD – are north of the 4,000-student mark. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County alone, there are 13 schools with more than 4,000 students and many of those approaching 5,000 students.

Some might question if packing that many kids in a school in the first place is a wise investment, but I’ll leave that debate for another time and focus on the economics.

The total number of schools in California is 9,855, with a student population of about 6.2 million students. That means an average school enrollment of 628. Texas has 8,342 schools for 4.7 million students. That’s an average school enrollment of 577. 

But you really see what makes Texas different if you break the average enrollment numbers up by school size.

Here’s the average number of students per school in districts based on size:

 50,000 students and higher: average school size 765
25,000-49,999 students: average school size 798
10,000-24,999 students: average school size 681
5,000-9,999 students: average school size 631
3,000-4,999 students: average school size 530
1,600-2,999 students: average school size 438
1,000-1,599 students: average school size 323
500-999 students: average school size 230
Under 500 students: average school size 152

Those numbers make it easy to see the economy of scale. And in Texas, where so many districts are geographically large and rural, 1.3 million kids attend school in districts of 10,000 students or less.

Another interesting fact, while Texas has more employees than California, a higher percentage of those employees are classroom teachers. While 50 percent of Texas public school employees are teachers, that number is 46 percent in California.

Our demographics, geography and population are beyond school districts’ control. Public school leaders are doing their best to provide Texas schoolchildren with what they need to succeed. And what Texas students need is not necessarily the same thing students in Oklahoma, Arizona or even California need.

Education isn’t one size fits all.

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