North Dakota’s Public School Enrollment Has Increased 18 Percent in a Decade, but Spending Has Increased More Than 67 Percent


Education is a priority for North Dakotans, which is why our state spends a lot on it.

With a population of just over 760,000, North Dakota has no fewer than 11 institutions of higher education. Even after dramatic post-oil-boom spending cuts, we’re #8 in the nation when it comes to per-student spending on higher education.

In terms of K-12 education, we’re #16 in per-student spending, comfortably above the national average.

But spending is an inferior metric by which to measure our public institutions of education. What good is throwing around a lot of money if we aren’t improving outcomes for students?

Looking at K-12 education, specifically, state spending has increased dramatically over the last decade. It’s gone up more than 67 percent, as you can see from this graph created by Legislative Council, over just an 18 percent enrollment increase (click for a larger view):

Here’s the trend line for enrollment, based on data from the Department of Public Instruction:

As the first chart notes, we’ve been averaging a nearly 13 percent increase in total K-12 spending every two-year budget cycle for the last decade, and that’s not even counting the local share we pay through property taxes.

What have we achieved with this increase in spending? After all, it might make sense to spend 67 percent more, over just an 18 percent growth in enrollment, if we saw academic outcomes improve.

If test scores are any indication, we haven’t achieved much. “Reading and math scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students in North Dakota have showed little improvement in the past two years, according to the results of a national assessment released Tuesday,” the Bismarck Tribune’s Blair Emerson reported last year. That lede refers to the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP tests, but that’s not the only metric where North Dakota students have shown little improvement.

“Not just NAEP, but the North Dakota State Assessment and other exam score trends have also remained flat, according to [North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten] Baesler,” Emerson reported.

State leaders have increased K-12 spending aggressively in recent budget cycles, and while property taxes are a local issue and can vary from district to district, the last time I checked most North Dakotans weren’t seeing decreases in the school district’s share of that tax.

So what gives? Where is the money going?

One explanation is payroll. I put in a request for statewide school hiring and pay data from the Department of Public Instruction, and the results are interesting.

Hiring growth for teachers as well as administrators like principals has been about in line with enrollment growth. The number of teachers grew 15 percent over the last decade, while administrative hiring grew 18 percent.

There’s an “other” category the DPI uses, though, of non-teaching positions like “directors” and “coordinators” where hiring has grown much faster (37 percent):

I imagine the schools justify the hiring growth in this “other” category by arguing that it bolsters the academic mission of the schools. But does it, as evidenced by the state’s stagnant performance on the various tests?

Meanwhile, pay for all employment categories has grown aggressively. Administrators saw the most growth at 45 percent, followed the teachers (35 percent) and the “others” (34 percent):

To put that into perspective, the U.S. Census Bureau pegged North Dakota’s median household income at just over $61,000 in 2017, only an 18 percent increase since 2008.

Meaning the administrators and teachers and “others” have enjoyed a rate of pay growth that’s roughly double what the median household in our state has seen.

I am not against compensating our educators generously. In some ways, we give our educators the short end of the stick. In a print column last month I noted that North Dakota teachers were, collectively, paying millions out of their own pockets for school supplies. That sort of thing needs to change.

But we’re also a state that has been investing heavily in spending on education for a long time now, and a lot of that investment has gone into expanding payrolls.

Isn’t it fair to start asking what we’re getting in return?