The school staffing paradox: A growing workforce in shrinking classrooms

The stats on school staffing might seem like a violation of the laws of supply and demand.

In the past decade, the population of elementary, middle and high school students in Massachusetts dropped by 42,000 while the number of school employees grew by 18,000. In Connecticut, public school enrollment fell 7% while staffing rose 8%. Even in states with growing populations, school staff has been increasing far faster than students. Texas, for example, educates 367,000 more students, a 7% increase over the past decade, but the number of employees has surged by more than 107,000, a 16% jump. Staffing is up 20% in Washington state, but the number of students has risen by less than 3%.

“When kids go to school right now there are more adults in the building of all types than there were in 2013 and more than when I was a kid,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, where she has been tracking the divergence between students and staff at the nation’s public schools.

What’s behind the apparent imbalance? Follow the money.

School hiring has taken place in three acts, Roza says. The first act followed the Great Recession of 2008, as schools added back staff that they had been forced to cut in the economic downturn.

The second act came with seven consecutive years of strong economic growth beginning in 2013. That led to higher state and local tax receipts, which increased school funding and enabled the new hires. “Most of the additions were fueled by a lot of new money,” said Roza. Schools hired more teachers to reduce class sizes. They added art and music teachers, librarians and nurses, as well as special education teachers to help children with disabilities. Schools generally chose to add more slots instead of raising salaries for the teachers they already had, Roza said.

The third act was a pandemic-fueled “hiring bonanza.” Starting in 2020, the federal government sent schools more than $200 billion in pandemic recovery funds. Schools hired additional counselors, interventionists (a fancy name for tutors), and aides, and increased their reserves of substitute teachers. More teachers were hired to further reduce class size, in the hope that students might receive more attention and catch up from pandemic learning losses. By the spring of 2023, school districts had amassed more staff than at any time in history, the Edunomics Lab calculated.

Not every school has increased staffing levels, according to Roza, but she says it’s a widespread national trend. Roza’s organization produced graphs for six states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, Washington and Pennsylvania – that release their staffing and student enrollment data publicly. It could be years before complete national data is available, Roza said.

The available data doesn’t specify how much of the staff expansion represents new classroom teachers, as opposed to support staff, such as janitors and attendance clerks, or administrators, such as vice principals and math supervisors.

Roza says there is administrative bloat in the central offices of many school districts. But some of the administrative growth is required to comply with increased federal regulations, such as those that stem from the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Other administrators are needed to manage federal grants. Central offices needed more administrators to handle recruitment and human resources because they were hiring for so many new positions.

Meanwhile, the number of students has been dropping in most school districts. That’s because Americans made fewer babies after the 2008 recession. The national elementary and middle school student population, ages five to 13, peaked in 2013 at 37 million; in 2021 there were 400,000 fewer students. (This includes public, private, charter and homeschooled students.) Student population losses are more dramatic in some regions of the country than others; many school districts in the South are still growing.

Roza says some schools have excess capacity and are only half filled. School budgets, often based on per pupil funding formulas, would normally be cut. But many districts have been insulated from financial realities because of pandemic recovery funds. Schools are expected to face a reckoning after September 2024 when these federal funds expire. Roza predicts many schools will need to lay off 4% or more of their staff, including teachers.

This news is confusing because school administrators have been complaining about teacher shortages. And indeed, there are unfilled vacancies at many schools. Some of these vacancies reflect new slots that are hard to fill with a finite supply of teachers. But many vacancies are in high poverty schools where fewer teachers want to teach. A year from now, as districts are forced to layoff more teachers, high poverty schools might have even more unfilled positions. And our neediest children will suffer the most.

This story about school staffing was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters.

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