Continued Gains in Number of School Employees Seen

By Daniel Gursky — January 29, 1992 7 min read

While the national unemployment rate has risen during the economic recession, many states have continued to see gains in the number of local school employees, figures released this month by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest.

Of the 28 states that provide monthly figures to the bureau on employment in “local-government education,” 15 reported having more local-education employees in every month of 1991 through November, the latest month for which data are available, compared with the same months in 1990. Only Massachusetts and West Virginia showed smaller school payrolls every month of 1991 compared with the preceding year.

Four of the 28 states--Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, and South Carolina started 1991 with more local public-education workers than a year before, but reported smaller workforces after the current school year started last fall. The pattern was mixed in the other states that report education employment, with the number of workers up in some months and down in others.

Additional B.L.s. figures indicate that 15 of the 22 states that supply information only on total local-government employment, without breaking out school jobs, also reported increases throughout 1991.

For the nation as a whole, the latest numbers show that local-government employment--with schools accounting for a large portion of the workforce--grew by more than 140,000 from December 1990 to December 1991.

The data released by the labor statistics bureau suggest that, so far, the layoffs undertaken by many financially hard-pressed districts have not reversed the national trend of rising school employment that started in most states in the mid-1980’s.

The latest available figures from the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, for fall 1989, show total K-12 employment at 4.4 million. School employment had declined every year from 1980 to 1983, to a low of 3.9 million, before beginning steady annual increases in 1984.

Some Dispute Figures

But the B.L.S. data provide, at best, only a general picture of the school employment situation. Even in the 28 states that report the size of the local public-education workforce, the statistics do not reveal which segments-such as instructional and non’instructional positions, or precollegiate and community-college employment-grew, or shrank, the most.

And some state-level officials dispute the Labor Department’s figures. For example, the B.L.S.--which calculates its figures by sampling data from state and local employment-security agencies--shows that Ohio had an increase of 6,300 local education employees in November 1991 over November 1990. But Susan Tavakolian of the state’s department of education said her best estimates indicate that school employment grew by only about 2,000, or 1 percent, in that period.

The issue of the size of school payrolls involves more than just a technical dispute over statistical methods. The subject also can take on political overtones.

Using Labor Department and Census Bureau statistics, for example, a Jan. 13 editorial in The Wall Street Journal lambasted state and local governments for the “flab” in their employment rolls. It mentioned schools as the main contributor to the 140,000-position jump in local government employment in 1991.

Hard Times Not Over

Education observers expressed some surprise that school employment appeared to grow in 1991 as the recession persisted, and they cautioned that the figures do not mean schools are escaping the effects of economic hard times.

“Whatever those statistics show,” said Gary Marx, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, “it’s of little consequence to a school district that is faced with a severe budget crunch and is having to lay off teachers and administrators to make their budget balance.”

“It does not allay the concerns we have,” Mr. Marx added. ‘the recession is having a very serious effect on many school systems in this country.”

In many states, moreover, the situation likely will get worse. There is generally a two-year lag between a recession and its effects on schools, said Martharose Laffey, the assistant executive director for external relations at the National School Boards Association. So far, schools may not have been hit as hard as many private employers, she said, but the public sector tends to be the last to snap out of a recession.

“Even if the recession ends soon,” Ms. Laffey said, “We anticipate that we’ll see reduced budgets through 1993 and maybe 1994,” because districts construct conservative fiscal plans when the economy falters.

Increased Enrollment

The most obvious explanation given for increased school employment is higher student enrollment.

Not surprisingly, the B.L.S. statistics showed fast-growing California with the largest increase in local-education employees, up by 8,300 this past November over November 1990. But Bill Honig, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said even that increase was inadequate to deal with the greater number of students in California.

“Our enrollment is going up by 200,000 kids a year,” he said, ‘“but the extra funds are not enough to keep the same ratio of employees to students. Our class size is continuing to go up.”

In most states, union contracts and class-size mandates make it difficult--if not impossible--to cut jobs during the school year, some observers noted. As a result, money for nonpersonnel items, such as textbooks, library books, supplies, and sports, may be cut instead. Some districts have also resorted to employee furloughs to save money.

In Illinois, state law prohibits any staff reductions during the school year, and districts must notify employees of layoffs at least 60 days before the end of the school year, said Jerry Glaub, the communications director for the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Illinois schools started the school year with increased revenues from local property taxes as well as more state funding, Mr. Glaub said, which helps explain the 3,900-person increase in local education staffing during 1991 shown by the B.L.s. But a state-budget shortfall has since developed that could mean a $100-million cut in aid to schools, he pointed out.

More Layoffs Anticipated

For Illinois, as for many other states, the full effect of budget cuts might not be felt until next school year, Mr. Glaub said. He anticipates more school-staff layoffs, which would add to Illinois’s unemployment rate of 9.3 percent, already well above the national figure of 7.1 percent.

Still, as a matter of policy-or, in same cases, state law--precollegiate education generally has fared better than many other sectors of government when governors and state legislators have made cuts to cope with budget shortfalls.

In Washington State, increased student enrollment, particularly at the elementary level, may largely account for the 5,500-person increase in local school employees reported by the B.L.s., according to Dick Moody, the assistant executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association. But the state constitution, he said, also guarantees that education receives top priority in the state budget, a protection that has helped shield schools from deep across-the-board cuts.

More than $7 billion of Washington’s almost $12-billion biennial budget goes to education, and the vast majority of that amount is constitutionally protected from cuts, Mr. Moody explained.

Unlike in many states, he added, “no [education] layoffs or staff cutbacks are anticipated” in Washington State next year.

Cutbacks in New York

In some states, however, the assumption that higher enrollment automatically brings more school employees does not hold true. New York provides the best example: Despite a 60,000-student enrollment increase in the state this year, school employment declined significantly.

A survey by the New York State School Boards Association found that more than three-quarters of the state’s districts have had to lay off certified employees during the 1991 92 school year. The average number of such layoffs per district was 13.4.

Statewide, teachers account for more than half the estimated 14,000 layoffs, and many administrators, teachers’ aides, and other noncertified staff members have also lost their jobs.

In New York State, furthermore, schools have not made out better than other sectors of government during the recession, said Louis Grumet, the executive director of the state school-beards association.

As Mr. Grumet sees it, schools had received such generous funding increases throughout the 1980’s that many legislators thought education should bear the bulk of the cuts when the state started to face massive budget deficits two years ago.

He predicted another round of layoffs next school year and severe cutbacks in elective classes throughout the state as schools focus their shrinking budgets primarily on required courses.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Continued Gains in Number of School Employees Seen