As students head back to school this year, it’s difficult to ignore the nationwide claims of teacher shortages, with special interest groups blaming underfunding.
The truth paints a different picture. Evidence suggests that there is no national teacher shortage— as the number of teachers has increased even as enrollments dropped — and that public schools are not, in fact, underfunded. The problem isn’t lack of money. It’s where the money goes.
A recent report on education trends from the Commonwealth Foundation shows that in Pennsylvania, enrollments in public schools have dropped, but the number of teachers and administrators has increased.
According to the report, since 2000, Pennsylvania public school overall enrollment has declined by 6.6 percent — a decrease of 120,000 students. This includes a 16.1 percent decline in the number of students enrolled in district schools, while charter schools grew by 152,000 students.
In 2000, on average there were 15.7 students for every teacher. Last year, that ratio dropped to 13.9 to 1.
Yet, shrinking enrollments haven’t slowed school district hires. During that same time frame, public schools added 20,000 employees — with a nearly 40 percent growth among administrators.
And shrinking enrollments are certainly not slowing district spending. In fact, public school spending is at a record high, and Pennsylvania ranks among the highest spending states in the county.
Pennsylvania school districts spent $19,900 per student in 2020–21, ranking eighth in the nation at more than $4,000 above the national average.
This was before the most recent state budget, which added another $1.5 billion in annual funding for public schools. State support of public education is up 47 percent in the last eight years, reaching an all-time high of $14.7 billion in 2022–23.
Of course, not all these funding increases go towards hiring teachers or towards classroom expenses — or are even spent at all.
Pennsylvania school districts have hoarded $5.29 billion in reserve funds—and keep adding to this stockpile every year. On top of that, another $4.72 billion in federal “reopening” aid for public schools remains unspent.
Does that sound like a system that’s hurting for money?
So why do some school districts experience teacher shortages and hiring difficulties? A partial driver has been districts continuing to hire and retain staff even as students leave. The student-to-teacher ratio varies by school district, from as high as 18.7 to 1, to as low as 4.6 students for every teacher, showing the discrepancy largely between growing and shrinking regions of Pennsylvania.
This disparity occurs because funding doesn’t follow students. School districts with shrinking enrollments have continued to get funding increases due to “hold harmless” provisions. And their over-hiring has led to teacher and staff shortfalls in districts that face greater hiring challenges.
Pennsylvania’s current funding formula bases decisions around school district buildings, not children. A better approach would be to link funding to students by implementing a weighted statewide funding formula that adjusts for changing district enrollment numbers and directs taxpayer dollars to meet the needs of students.
Pennsylvania and other states would also see improvements by enacting Educational Opportunity Accounts, allowing state funding to follow students to the educational options that best fit their individual needs.
Ten states now have similar programs that empower parents with educational accounts of approximately $7,000 per student, allowing them to customize their education and ensure each kid has access to an excellent education.
And if states have concerns about teacher shortages, they should consider reforms that truly make a difference, instead of throwing more money at a problem that doesn’t exist. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers could roll back regulations and certification requirements that do little to improve educational quality but have exacerbated racial bias in hiring and restricted the hiring of quality teachers altogether.
State pension reform could help alleviate future hiring challenges, as well. The average Pennsylvania teacher earns more than $70,000, the 11th highest in the nation. A recent study named Pennsylvania the best state for teachers based on pay compared to all other occupations in the state. But on top of that, Pennsylvania public schools spend overall more than $20,000 per teacher to pay off pension liabilities.
Had Pennsylvania utilized a defined contribution retirement system, like a 401K (by design always fully funded), public schools could offer $90,000 in average teacher salaries at current spending levels.
As kids go back to school, it is crucial for parents, teachers, and taxpayers across the country to know the truth.
Pennsylvania spends nearly $20,000 per student in public schools, with state and local taxpayer funding constantly increasing. School districts have fewer students, but more teachers, more administrators, more support staff, and significantly larger reserve funds.
The issue is not a lack of money, but one of distribution.
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and across the country should work to ensure that funding follows the child, not the building, and continue progress on pension reform that benefits both teachers and taxpayers.
Nate Benefield is Senior Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.