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The N.C. Senate proposed reducing the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) budget by 30 percent, while their counterparts in the House proposed a 1 percent cut.  In this week’s CommenTerry, I’ll consider arguments for and against putting DPI on a diet.

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In his 1957 book Parkinson’s Law or the Pursuit of Progress, naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson found that between 1914 and 1928 the number of admiralty officials in the British Navy increased by 78 percent, while the number of ships decreased by 68 percent.  If the size of the British naval fleet decreased, why was there an increase in officers?

This question led him to formulate Parkinson’s Law, which states that work "expands as to fill the time available for its completion."  In other words, there is no inherent relationship between the amount of work that must be done and the size of the staff assigned to do the work.  As senior administrators hire subordinates, the administrative operation produces work for itself, expanding the bureaucracy. 

In this way, the net rise in the number of state education employees has little to do with improving student performance and has everything to do with maintaining the bureaucratic machine.  That is not to say that there is no need for an administrative apparatus to oversee the work of a complex organization like North Carolina’s public school system.  For example, various monitoring and reporting requirements ensure that schools and school districts use their funds properly.  In their most basic form, these mandates increase transparency and accountability, two essential components of good government.

But inevitably an agency like the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) begins to assume roles that go beyond its core responsibility of ensuring the state operates an efficient and effective, i.e., a productive, system of public schools.  When it undertakes functions that the agency is ill-advised or ill-equipped to handle, we begin to see impediments to transparency, accountability, and educational productivity.  The work, staff, and complexity multiply, but effectiveness does not.

Some may object that the growth of DPI is beyond the department’s control.  After all, their function is to carry out state and federal law, not create it.  In both cases, however, there is choice involved. The state chooses to accept regulation-laden federal grants and implement the latest and greatest programs.  They do so without serious consideration of the excessive bureaucracy needed to administer initiatives that usually do little to improve learning.  In fact, state education officials have made only superficial attempts to reduce state and federal mandates or even find ways to delegate program administration to schools, school districts, non-profit organizations, or private sector entities.

In the end, student achievement is what matters.  There is no apparent relationship between recent increases in DPI personnel and academic achievement (See Facts and Stats below).  Specifically, reading and math scores on the federal National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests have plateaued, despite increases in positions at DPI funded by the state and federal governments.  This is the major reason why the N.C. General Assembly is considering cuts to our state education agency.  And it is a compelling one.

Facts and Stats

Acronym of the Week

DPI — Department of Public Instruction


Quote of the Week

"The Department of Public Instruction is slated for a 30 percent cut. … These cuts will eliminate essential services for teachers and schools and leave teachers with more duties and less support."


– State Superintendent June Atkinson’s Response to the Senate Budget Proposal, May 29, 2014 press release

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