Staffed Up is a regular series examining school staffing best practices and solutions for teacher recruitment and retention. Catch up on other installments here.
As the spending deadline for historic federal COVID-19 relief funding comes to an end in almost a year, some education experts are beginning to question if investing in school staffing is the best choice moving forward, given that public school enrollment is continuing to decline.
In June, Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab hosted a webinar asking this same question. Marguerite Roza, a research professor and director of the Edunomics Lab, noted examples of several long-term state and district trends where staffing has ballooned while student enrollment has dropped, and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds contributed greatly to this trend.
Roza said $24 billion of the total $122.7 billion in ESSER III funds are financing districts’ annual labor. When those funds dry up, she said, jobs are likely to be reduced. With 4% of all education jobs on the line due to this ESSER fiscal cliff, up to an estimated 250,000 education jobs could be cut, according to Roza. And it’s unlikely state revenue will be able to fill these financial gaps, she said.
The staffing question arises alongside similar debates seeking to understand whether teacher shortages exist at all.
The evidence suggests that the question is more nuanced.
For instance, a 2022 study of the situation in Tennessee found “shortages can occur for individual schools even when there is a statewide surplus, and schools can enjoy a surplus of labor even when there is a statewide shortage.” That research, from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, analyzed teacher shortages at the state, regional, district and school levels.
Pressure mounts to retain quality teachers
Teacher vacancies are also more common in hard-to-staff areas like science, math and special education, according to Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
“There are certainly teacher shortages, and they’ve been persistent shortages both before the pandemic and now that we’re in the wake of the pandemic,” Peske said. “And it is specific to certain subjects, certain geographic regions, and certain schools that have more challenges in attracting and retaining teachers.”
As ESSER funds wind down and potential staffing cuts loom, it’s crucial policymakers focus on analyzing teacher performance and retaining the best teachers while focusing on school-level needs, Peske said.
School administrators will need to eliminate any duplicative or excess personnel positions, and will need to plan for student enrollment projections, Peske said. Teacher qualifications and licensure type should be another factor in these decisions, she added.
If widespread layoffs do become necessary, how will they be made? This is a crucial question that district administrators could be wrestling with.
Earlier this year, NCTQ released data showing 31% of the nation's 148 largest districts rely on seniority as a major factor when determining layoffs. Such a policy leads to laying off younger teachers, who are also more likely to be educators of color.
“This means that we don’t always retain our teachers who are the most impactful with students,” Peske said.
To avoid losing high-performing teachers, a report by TNTP and Educators for Excellence recommends states and districts adjust their layoff policies to rely on local priorities and context. For instance, certain hard-to-staff schools or teaching positions like special education and math are prioritized in layoff protections due to a Nevada state law.
So should districts and states continue efforts to address teacher shortages — through investments in grow-your-own programs or higher raises — if economic headwinds are expected to cause extensive layoffs?
For Peske, it’s hard to say, because disaggregated data on current teacher vacancies to help districts know what to expect just isn’t there.
“What’s difficult is that a lot of districts and states are making decisions in the dark because we simply don’t have a lot of concrete information on teacher shortages or teacher supply or teacher demand,” Peske said. “This lack of nuance or lack of disaggregation in the data really limits the usefulness of the prediction of the teacher labor market.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in June proposed a bill to address this very issue. The Supporting Teaching and Learning Through Better Data Act would provide grants to state education agencies to improve data gathering on the teacher workforce. The bill would also require a report on how to improve regional, state and national data collection on the matter.
Will teacher shortages worsen?
The broad assumption that schools are overstaffed or budgets are “bloated” does not apply uniformly to all schools nationwide, and particularly doesn't apply in urban and rural areas, said Leslie Fenwick, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s dean in residence and a dean emerita of the Howard University School of Education.
Fenwick also said she doesn’t expect the teacher shortage to go away in the near future. Unless leaders can resolve the understaffing of urban schools that serve students of color and students living in poverty, the problem will continue, she said.
As the co-founder of the Urban Superintendents Academy in partnership with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, Fenwick heard from superintendents that ESSER investments were “a much-needed jolt to the system.” The funding not only helped with hiring teachers, she said, it also is meeting student needs through the hiring of school-based social workers and psychologists.
“Children’s needs are not going to evaporate,” Fenwick said. COVID made clear "the depth of children’s needs and exacerbated kids having a sense of loss for routine and traumatic grief.”
It’s unfortunate that states can't backfill the ESSER dollars when they go away, Fenwick said, pointing to a need for overhauling the state funding formulas for public schools. She suggested a national convening over inequitable funding for education, rather than reassessing whether schools need more staffing.
“Let’s pause and do a deep dive into the state funding formula and other economic equations that have us underfunding and disinvesting in education for poor children, children of color, children in rural school districts,” Fenwick said. “This is the ideal time to come up with new ways to sustain public schools financially.”
Even as potential layoffs loom, research has suggested that overall signs of teacher shortages may persist, with scattered retention data becoming an ongoing concern.
Surveys have continuously shown that a sizable share of teachers are looking to leave the profession. A national study by nonprofit Gradient Learning in spring 2023 found only 27% of 639 educators polled said it is very likely they would still be teaching in five years.
Candy Gonzales, a cultural linguistic development teacher at Prairie Heights Middle School in Greeley, Colorado, said she understands how hard it is for her peers to keep going.
When the ESSER funds run out and if layoffs begin, “it’s going to be a mess” and the teacher shortage will worsen, Gonzales said. Morale will continue to decline for those who remain as working conditions become even more stressful, she said.
At the same time, staff cuts and a lack of sustainable funding and staff cuts could further deter new graduates from entering the teacher workforce, she said.
“If people are laid off, it’s just going to get worse,” Gonzales said. “It doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be a teacher shortage. The same thing is going to continue.”