School Staffing Challenges During COVID-19 Reflect a Serious and Widespread School Funding Shortage

The news is filled with stories of public schools in crisis during the pandemic, with much of the problem being staffing shortages due to COVID quarantines and the sheer exhaustion of over-worked staff covering extra classes and coping with stress as kids coming back this year bring social and emotional challenges. But, although the pandemic has clearly presented a series of complex problems for public schools, it is also likely that through the lens of the pandemic we are watching a long and widespread school funding crisis.

In Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarizes the fiscal condition of school districts a decade after the 2008 Great Recession: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)

In the newest (December 2021) annual school funding report released by the Albert Shanker Institute, Rutgers University professor, Bruce Baker confirms Derek Black’s analysis. Baker begins by acknowledging: “In the United States, K-12 school finance is largely controlled by the states. The inner workings of individual states’ systems are complex, often driven by a gridwork of funding rules and formulas that have evolved over decades of political wrangling, legislation and litigation.”  Despite differences across the 50 state school funding systems, however, Baker documents three overall trends:

  • States’ Fiscal Effort to Fund Schools Has Declined.   There is wide disparity across the states in the proportion of state revenue spent on schools, but, “U.S. Average effort is at its lowest level in at least 20 years. In 37 states, effort is lower than it was on average during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools. Decreasing effort since 2007 ‘cost’ U.S. schools almost $70 billion in 2019 alone… The total cumulative ‘loss’ between 2013 and 2019 is $400 billion, 9 percent of total spending over this time period.”
  • School Funding Is Inadequate   “Educational opportunity in the U.S. is highly unequal. In states’ highest poverty districts, on average, actual spending is 17 percent below estimated adequacy levels. In 18 states, this negative funding gap is more than 30 percent under adequate levels.” African American and Hispanic  students are twice as likely as white students to be enrolled in underfunded districts.
  • In Most States, K-12 Funding is Either Regressive, or, At Best, Modestly Progressive   “In 20 states, high-poverty districts receive less funding than do the lowest poverty districts (i.e. funding is ‘regressive.’)”

Baker reports: “The primary conclusions from these findings are that the vast majority of states are failing to provide adequate and equitable funding for their students, and that this failure is due largely to policy choices.”

It is easy for parents to grasp some of the particular effects on their children’s experiences of this long decline in state funding—bigger classes—loss of the school librarian and the closure of the school library—nurses who serve two or three elementary schools each week—the elimination of elementary school instrumental music—college counselors with overwhelming caseloads—parents paying fees for their kids to play on the football team.

But what about the invisible school staff most of us just take for granted? As the COVID pandemic drags on, news media are reporting a widespread shortage of school bus drivers, school cafeteria workers, classroom aides, and custodians. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute, Raising Pay in Public K-12 Schools Is Critical to Solving Staffing Shortages, blames these shortages not merely on the pandemic but also on widespread underfunding of public schools: “Education support staff are vital to school operations—getting students to school, ensuring they’re fed, maintaining safe and clean facilities, and providing individual support and attention when a student needs help. In many cases, these workers are also particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Not only are education workers in general exposed to what has been—until recently—a largely unvaccinated student population, but support staff in particular are older, on average, than the typical U.S. worker, putting them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness… The average bus driver is 54 years old, while both food service and custodial workers are 49 years old on average. The average age among teaching assistants is 46 years old.”

These essential school workers are older and more vulnerable to COVID-19, but, “The other key issue driving education support staff shortages is the fact that these jobs are very poorly paid…. (T)ypical weekly wages of education support staff are considerably lower than typical weekly wages in the economy overall. From 2014 to 2019, the median weekly wage of food service workers in K-12 education was $331 per week (2020 dollars)—less than half the median weekly wage of workers in the economy overall.  Similarly, bus drivers and teaching assistants are paid roughly $500 per week.”

The problem is complicated because these people may not work full-time: “For some of these positions, low weekly wages are a function of both low hourly rates and more limited hours. School buses and cafeterias, for example, typically operate only for a portion of the workday. Bus drivers and food service workers average only about 30 hours per week in these jobs.  At these weekly rates, a school food service worker makes just over $17,000 a year, and school bus drivers just under $26,000 if they work year-round—an unlikely scenario as many of these jobs are available only when school is in session. Many K-12 education staff are either out of work or must find alternative employment during the summer months… Our analysis of CPS data finds that whereas 4.5% of all workers work more than one job, 11.4% of public school bus drivers, 10.6% of teaching assistants, 7.1% of school custodians, and 6.1% of food service staff work multiple jobs.  The combination of low pay and limited hours makes these front-line jobs less attractive to return to—or apply to.  Part-time earnings at low hourly rates may simply not be viable for many would-be staffers in these roles.”

EPI researchers recommend that, “Policymakers… tap into the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds available now to raise pay for education staff, enact strong COVID protections, invest in teacher development programs, and experiment with ways to support part time and part year staff when school is not in session.”  But, “To be clear, the one-time aid provided in the ARPA (2021 American Rescue Plan) and the CARES Act (2020 rescue plan) will not be sufficient to fully resolve these issues. Policymakers will need to dedicate increased long term funding to public education to bring… lasting reforms—and, in many cases, this will require expanding state and local revenues.  The pandemic has clearly shown that the alternative—continuing to underinvest in public education—is not tenable if we want schools to be open and children to have a safe and supportive place to learn.”

The new EPI report also points to another issue—lagging teachers’ salaries (covered previously in far more detail by earlier research from EPI). The challenges public school teachers face “are playing out against a longstanding, large, and growing gap between what teachers earn and what their similarly educated counterparts elsewhere in the economy are paid. Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising that schools are dealing with teacher shortages, and that an increasing share of teachers have considered leaving the profession.”

Although inadequate and unstable staffing in public schools has certainly been exacerbated by COVID-19, a deeper problem is the long decline in states’ investment in their public schools.  Boston’s school superintendent, Brenda Cassellius summarized these concerns in a Washington Post column last week:

“Now, as we enter the pandemic’s third year, America’s public schools are at risk of defaulting on their moral obligation to millions of children. Teachers, aides, principals, bus drivers, school lunch workers, custodians and other school staff are leaving in droves or are out of service due to illness. A dearth of substitutes and backup workers means day-to-day decisions about whether a school can remain open are the norm. In Boston, we have consistently had a 20 percent job-vacancy rate since the summer in our food and nutrition services department. We have been short more than 100 bus monitors and approximately 30 bus drivers on any given day. And that’s in addition to teacher and other staff absences that can erode children’s learning experiences. The pandemic has accelerated our staffing challenges, but this concerning trend has been at our doorstep for the better part of a decade. Fewer recent college graduates are choosing teaching, and a 2021 survey showed that nearly one-third of America’s teachers were thinking about leaving teaching earlier than they’d planned. Once seen as a stable career that came with the potential to make a significant positive impact on a community, teaching can no longer compete with positions offering more flexibility and higher pay. We need solutions to school staffing that go beyond what any one city or state can provide. Our state and federal government partners must work with us.”

Laura Meckler Presents Public Schools as Hopelessly Challenged: She Is Wrong

Has everything’s gone to hell in public schools?  Apparently, according to Laura Meckler’s piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, she believes that.

Meckler writes: “For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers… Political battles are now a central feature of education, leaving school boards, educators and students in the crosshairs of culture warriors. Schools are on the defensive about their pandemic decision-making, their curriculums, their policies regarding race and racial equity and even the contents of their libraries. Republicans — who see education as a winning political issue — are pressing their case for more “parental control,” or the right to second-guess educators’ choices. Meanwhile, an energized school choice movement has capitalized on the pandemic to promote alternatives to traditional public schools.”

COVID-19 has brought a mass of challenges to America’s public schools, our largest civic institution. But there are myriad ways Meckler fails to sort out the issues.  She fails to point out that most of the problems she names were not caused by public school leaders and teachers, and few are the result of mismanagement.  Almost all of the problems she mentions fall into one category: challenges public schools haven’t been able fully to overcome.

Meckler worries about emotional malaise among students who missed school due to COVID-19 and who are now struggling with social skills and anger or depression.  School leaders are doing everything they can within their budget constraints to involve staff to help students with emotional management, conflict resolution, and mental health, but Meckler’s catalogue of school crises leaves her no room to explore what’s being done.

Meckler mentions worries that public schools have not been able to overcome the shortage—exacerbated by COVID-19—of bus drivers and substitute teachers. Teachers and school administrators are trying to cope with the effects of staffing shortages even as they undertake to support students through a very difficult year.

And Meckler seems to believe that public schools are not doing enough to remedy “learning loss” caused by school closures and remote learning during COVID-19.  She worries “There may be a whole cohort of students who are disengaged altogether from the education system.” However, Meckler doesn’t explore the ways teachers and counselors and school district attendance officers are reaching out to re-engage students, keep them in school, and help them thrive.

Jeff Lavin, a Chicago school principal, profoundly describes how he and his staff are responding to these challenges: “In my school, crisis response means re-budgeting midyear to create a new position for conflict resolution. It means a community organization bringing parent mentors to our classrooms. It means anything that gets more eyes, ears, and hearts for our children now.  It is still is not enough. There is no way to unbreak everything the pandemic broke. You cannot discipline your way out of trauma. There is nothing that can make healing not take time… Our job is to be what children need. Their needs are different now. We have to be different, too.”

Meckler worries about gun violence as a problem of public schools. School shootings are a problem of a society overrun with guns, but the problem is definitely not caused by public schools.

Meckler quotes a staff person at the pro-voucher Ed Choice about how such pro-privatization think tanks are exploiting today’s challenges for public schools as these organizations work hard to lobby state legislatures for vouchers and charter schools. She utterly fails to consider that almost nobody is celebrating remote schooling; millions of parents all over the country are demanding that their public schools reopen in person. Presumably the privatized online charter academies have suffered in reputation as we all learned that putting school on remote during COVID worked neither for students nor their teachers.

Meckler describes the uprisings by parents across American school districts—parents protesting mask mandates—parents protesting teaching about slavery and “controversial topics” that might make some children uncomfortable—parents demanding that school boards ban specific books on “controversial topics.”  She neglects to mention that what appear to be grassroots parent-led attacks are in most cases the result of  a well-designed political initiative—led by organizations like Moms for Liberty, FreedomWorks, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education—designed by think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute—and paid for by far-right philanthropists. This project has been set up to inflame white parents in segregated suburbs, or, as a new report summarized by the National Education Policy Center shows, in districts currently experiencing racial change, by stoking these parents’ fears that their privilege and their protective historical myths are threatened.

One thing I have learned after nearly eight years as a blogger: It works best to consider one issue at a time.  Considering everything all at once, as Meckler does in her Washington Post story, immediately becomes overwhelming.

Public schools are durable and complex institutions. Public school teachers and administrators are struggling right now to bring students comfortably back to school after more than a year of disruption. My belief is that most of these professional educators will survive and succeed.