In an event with first responders Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden made a case for additional federal aid, citing teacher job losses alongside potential cuts to fire departments and other agencies as state and local revenues crater in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But the figure he quoted wasn’t quite accurate, and the situation is more complicated than it seems in a sound bite.
Relief negotiations between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump’s White House are at a standstill, even as rates of the virus, and related hospitalizations, surge around the country.
On the campaign trail, Biden often cited concerns about the loss of teaching jobs to personalize the economic crisis, calling for the passage of the Democrats’ HEROES Act or a similar relief bill. He made a similar argument this week, speaking to a virtual panel of firefighters, school nurses, and other medical personnel.
“There’s already a circumstance where nationwide—because of the requirement of school districts, county offices, mayors, and governors having to balance their budgets—they’ve already had to lay off 666,000 teachers,” Biden said. “Six hundred sixty-six thousand teachers have been laid off already since March.”
In truth, teacher job losses have not reached that level, federal data show. But that doesn’t mean the situation is rosy for local school budgets.
From February to October, the number of “local government education” jobs fell by 666,200, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. That’s a decline of about 8.3 percent of total positions, compared to a 20.7 percent decline in hospitality positions, a 3.2 percent drop in retail jobs, and a 4.8 percent drop in non-education local government jobs, according to an analysis by the Pew Trusts.
But “local government education” jobs include more than just classroom teaching positions. About half of that figure are classroom teachers, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-learning think tank. “Other staff include teaching assistants, special education teachers, counselors, food service workers, administrators, bus drivers, and dozens of other occupations,” Gould said in an email.
And, as Education Week has reported, not all of the education-related job losses to date are due to budget cuts.
“It turns out that the BLS considers hourly workers at schools unemployed if a school is closed—as they are every summer, for example,” we reported in June.
When schools around the country switched to remote learning in the spring, that led to drops in employment figures for on-site workers, like custodians and other employees whose jobs depend on open school buildings. As the new school year started in the fall, some schools remained in remote learning mode and kept those employees furloughed. Others reopened with fewer employees, including teachers, in anticipation of future budget cuts.
In July, Education Week sought to track teacher layoffs and spoke to some laid off educators about their experiences.
The decline in education jobs, even non-teaching jobs, matters for students, especially if it results in fewer programs or supports, education groups say. And it can’t all be attributed to school closures. Even as the school year started, public sector jobs continued to decline, even as private sector jobs grew, Gould said.
But, because of how state and local budgets are structured, there may be a lag before we see the full effect of the current economic decline on teacher jobs.
“In 2021, school districts and colleges will continue to confront multiple headwinds,” the Pew analysis said. “Most states are projecting significant revenue shortfalls that will threaten aid to education. But schools also often rely heavily on local property taxes, a revenue stream that has yet to incur major reductions. In the last recession, the deepest cuts to public employment didn’t occur until well into the recovery, lagging the private sector by a few years.”
Many schools haven’t recovered from the 2008 recession, educational administrators have said, and the current challenges are like salt in a wound. Beyond concerns about declining revenues, they also have costly needs related to the coronavirus crisis, such as education technology, increased student supports, and supplies like masks.
After the Great Recession, Congress failed to provide enough relief to schools to shield them from devastating consequences, witnesses told a congressional committee in June.
When schools rapidly shut down in the spring, they had 77,000 fewer total employees than they did before the 2008 recession, even though they enrolled about 1.5 million additional children, Michael Leachman, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the committee.
That’s why many education groups have pushed for state and federal aid in the next coronavirus relief bill, in addition to more designated education funding.
Some congressional Republicans have criticized such demands, saying they don’t want to bail out localities that have “mismanaged” their budgets. But bipartisan groups of lawmakers, including governors, have pushed for the relief.
Some, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, say states have not done enough with the federal resources provided to them through the CARES Act, a $2 trillion relief bill Congress passed in the spring.