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News from EPI Raising pay in public K–12 schools is critical to solving staffing shortages

A new EPI report documents the extent of staffing shortages in public K–12 schools and shows that raising pay and using federal relief funds to invest in the education workforce is critical to solving staffing shortages.

The number of people reporting they were employed in public K–12 elementary and secondary schools declined by 4.7% from Fall 2019 to Fall 2021, according to establishment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Household survey data indicate that the number of employed teachers fell by 6.8%, bus drivers by 14.7%, and school custodians by 6.0%.

The report explains that many K–12 school support staff—particularly bus drivers, food service workers, and custodial staff—tend to be older and thus more susceptible to severe COVID. The share of public-school bus drivers who are age 50 or older is 66.2%—more than double the share in the economy overall. Similarly, more than half of food service and custodial workers are age 50 or older.

The other key issue likely driving education support staff shortages is that these jobs are very poorly paid. 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—around 60% of the overall median.

Nearly every state has experienced substantial losses in local public education employment because of the pandemic. The largest declines in the pandemic have occurred in Alaska (-17.5%), Vermont (-11.6%), and New Mexico (-10.7%). A total of 16 states has experienced losses of 5% or more, with seven states having losses of 8% or more.

Many states and localities confronting shortages right now have more capacity to address funding and pay issues than they have had in decades. Congressional pandemic relief measures have provided unprecedented levels of federal funding to states, counties, municipal governments, tribal territories, and school districts.

“Public officials should seize this moment of greater fiscal flexibility to begin making the reforms needed to attract, keep safe, and retain high-quality teachers and support staff,” said David Cooper, co-author of the report and director of EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN). “That means raising pay, enacting strong COVID protections, investing in teacher development programs, and finding ways to support part-time and part-year staff when school is not in session.”

The current gap in K–12 education employment comes on the heels of huge employment losses in public education after the Great Recession that were never fully restored. Previous EPI research has shown that budget cuts, lack of investment in schools, low relative pay, challenging school climates, and inadequate early career supports led to rising teacher turnover and a shrinking pipeline of qualified teachers in the country’s schools long before the pandemic began.

The report authors urge policymakers to dedicate increased long-term funding to public education to bring lasting reforms. 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.

“This moment of crisis for the country’s schools could be a turning point—when communities begin funding schools at the levels required to recruit, train, and retain high-quality educators and support staff—but it will require public officials to choose to make those investments. Federal COVID relief funds offer a down payment on these investments but making them sustainable will require an overhaul of how many states fund schools,” said Sebastian Hickey, co-author of the report and research assistant at EARN.

This research was first presented on January 27, 2022, to a Task Force of the American Federation of Teachers on the Teacher and School Staff Shortage.