Almost 320,000 teaching jobs could be lost if states cut their education budgets by 15 percent in a coronavirus-inflicted recession, a new analysis has found.
That hypothetical cut would mean an 8.4 percent reduction in the U.S. teaching corps, with some states seeing reductions as large as 20 percent, according to the analysis by the Learning Policy Institute. With schools cutting that many teaching positions—either through layoffs or eliminating vacant positions—class sizes would increase.
“What we’re hearing from some states is it’s going to be a lot higher than [a 15 percent cut], but everyone’s guessing at this point, so we stayed on the conservative end,” said Michael Griffith, a senior school finance research and policy analyst at LPI and the author of the analysis.
On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported that the U.S. economy contracted at a 4.8 percent pace from January to March, signaling the start of a recession. That’s the biggest decline since the Great Recession, when the United States lost more than 120,000 teaching positions. (The country would have likely lost about 250,000 more teaching jobs during that time period without federal recovery money, Griffith said.)
The LPI analysis assumes that local and federal funding will remain flat. It includes the $13.5 billion that schools received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act but does not assume any additional federal funding. (A coalition of education groups has asked Congress for $200 billion in new aid for schools, but federal lawmakers have not signaled that another infusion of emergency money for schools is coming.)
Public schools spend about 80 percent of their budgets on staff salaries and benefits, and the analysis assumes that districts would continue their current spending patterns. If states slash education budgets, Griffith said, school districts would likely lay off early-career teachers first.
A national economic downturn would impact states in different ways, depending on how much their schools rely on state revenue, Griffith said. California, New York, and Texas would see the largest teacher reductions, the LPI analysis shows, while South Dakota, Rhode Island, and Montana would lose the least amount of teachers.
The impact of these cuts could come quickly, Griffith warned.
“We’ve never fully recovered from the last recession—we still have fewer teachers than we did in 2008,” he said. “Last recession, [districts] had a lot more cushion there, and they were able to ... eliminate administrative positions, eliminate certain programs, tighten their belts, and still kind of make it [for a while] before laying off teachers.”
And school districts that serve high percentages of children from low-income families will be hurt the most, since wealthy districts have high levels of local property tax revenue that can soften the blow, Griffith said.
“The more reliant you are on state funding, the harder this is going to hit you as a school district,” he said. “There starts to be a separation of the haves and the have nots.”
Earlier this week, the Council of the Great City Schools estimated that 275,000 teachers could lose their jobs in big-city school districts alone, although the group did not provide details about that projection.
For the past couple years, teachers across the country have been gaining momentum as they fight for more education funding. Now, they fear, all that progress will be lost.
Already, several states have reduced anticipated pay raises for teachers. In Hawaii, the governor is considering cutting teachers’ pay by 20 percent starting June 1. Corey Rosenlee, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said he’s worried more about teachers being driven out of the profession en masse than he is about potential layoffs.
“I don’t know how many years it’s going to put us behind,” he said, adding that Hawaii was just about to fund a program to address persistent teacher shortages when the coronavirus outbreak happened. “There’s going to be a short-term consequence of losing teachers, ... but what is the long-term impact going to be? Right now, a lot of our students are saying, ‘I can’t afford to be a teacher.’”
In Arizona, where teachers staged a six-day strike in 2018 for higher wages and more school funding, there could be an 8 percent reduction in teaching jobs, according to the LPI analysis. That translates to about 4,200 lost teachers.
“That would be just horrifying for our students,” said Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher and a lead organizer for the grassroots group Arizona Educators United. “We already have one of the highest class size averages in the nation, and that would just make it go up.”
The cuts made to school funding during the Great Recession devastated districts, she said, and they’re still catching up to where they were in 2008.
“To think of going back to that again—it’s not even a possibility in my mind,” Fisher said. “There are so many teachers in Arizona that are willing to stand up and not let that happen again.”
Image: CharlieAJA/iStock/Getty. Data provided courtesy of the Learning Policy Institute. For more details, please see this LPI blog.