Practically every segment of the economy has suffered this year as the pandemic and resulting recession sparked massive job losses, but new data suggests education workers have been among the hardest hit.
The latest U.S. Department of Labor estimates show that state and local education employment was down 8.8% in October from the previous year, representing the lowest national jobs total at that point in the school year since 2000. The cuts were mostly driven by temporary layoffs and positions left unfilled in the new school year. Private sector jobs, by comparison, dropped 6.2% year over year.
The severity of public employment declines so far varies considerably across states, which isn’t surprising given that some state and local budgets have been hit harder by the new recession than others and that schools have taken different approaches to reopening with in-person or remote instruction.
In seven states, local education employment fell more than 10% over the year as of September, based on the latest available state-level data. Meanwhile only two states, North Dakota and Utah, recorded slight gains. In most states, higher education employment fell at even greater rates. Although teachers account for a portion of the local education cuts, anecdotal evidence suggests that bus drivers, food service personnel, support staff, and other noninstructional positions bore the brunt of the initial reductions as schools shifted to distance learning.
The federal coronavirus aid package enacted earlier this year included nearly $31 billion to help schools and colleges, and officials are waiting to see if Congress will approve additional critical funding for education.
The majority of the mostly temporary education job cuts have hit local public schools, driving employment in the sector down in nearly every state from September 2019 to September 2020. Nationally, local public education is down 6.9% during the same period.
Nevada (-19%), West Virginia (-14%), and Florida (-13%) recorded the largest declines from a year ago. Nevada lawmakers cut K-12 education funding by about $160 million in a special session in July after the pandemic temporarily shuttered casinos, hotels, and other establishments that generate crucial sales tax revenue. The Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas and accounts for the majority of the state’s student enrollment, did not fill several hundred vacant teaching positions. Still, the county’s losses appear much smaller than those in the statewide preliminary estimates, which are subject to labor department revisions.
Local education jobs in Florida were similarly well below last September. Many districts there experienced substantial drops in student enrollment, which could lead to sharp reductions in per-pupil funding. The state based funding for the current semester on July projections that don’t reflect enrollment declines, but Governor Ron DeSantis (R) has not yet announced whether this will carry over into next year. The Florida Education Association published a letter to Gov. DeSantis in September calling attention to an increase in teacher retirements and resignations, adding that districts were holding back spending in anticipation of potential budget cuts.
Note: Calculations based on preliminary federal estimates subject to revision. Jobs data was unavailable for Missouri and Hawaii.
Source: Pew calculations of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics non-seasonally adjusted data for September 2019-September 2020. State data accessed Oct. 19, 2020; revised national estimates for September accessed Nov. 6, 2020.
Some districts have already sustained significant reductions in state funding. Georgia slashed its K-12 funding by $950 million, although federal aid and reserves are expected to cover about half the reduction. A review of the jobs data suggests states’ declines in local education employment often mirror their private sector job losses. North Dakota and Utah, with among the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, were the only states registering gains in local education jobs.
News reports suggest many of the layoffs or furloughs so far have targeted bus drivers, custodial staff, cafeteria workers, and other support personnel, rather than teachers. Such noninstructional staff account for about 30% of full-time equivalent jobs in U.S. elementary and secondary education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll.
A significant portion of job losses may be temporary until students physically return to the classroom. Of all unemployed state and local government workers experiencing job losses, an estimated 70% reported their layoff was temporary in the federal government’s September Current Population Survey.
Nationally, local education jobs bottomed out in May, when they had dropped by about 730,000 from February totals. They started recovering in July and August before falling further in September and October. Preliminary seasonally adjusted employment estimates remain down 8.3% from pre-pandemic levels in February.
Meanwhile, public colleges and universities have sustained an even sharper 13.7% drop in employment when October national estimates are compared with pre-pandemic February totals, although the number of jobs lost represents only about half the reduction to K-12 education (which employs far more people).
Preliminary Labor Department estimates for state education were down 10.6% in September from a year ago. Five states experienced losses exceeding 20%: Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wyoming. Many of these furloughs or layoffs reflect colleges delaying reopening or canceling classes on campuses. An initiative by Davidson College tracking reopening plans shows only about 28% of public and private institutions are holding classes either fully or primarily in person.
Higher education employment fell as the pandemic has triggered state funding cutbacks, new expenses such as for testing and contact tracing, and enrollment declines. In a Sept. 25 letter to congressional leaders, higher education associations reported revenue losses, and new costs, had already greatly exceeded the groups’ prior estimates. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published data showing a 9.4% drop in undergraduate enrollment for public two-year colleges and a slight decline for public four-year institutions.
Many local school districts and public colleges have not needed to issue many pink slips to trim their payrolls. Instead, with the pandemic causing some teachers and staff to either retire or leave their jobs, they’ve just not filled vacant positions. About 82% of college and university presidents anticipated hiring freezes in a July Association of American Colleges and Universities survey.
Given the magnitude of employment declines so far, public K-12 and higher education could effectively act as a drag on broader economic growth. Education, in fact, has experienced noticeably steeper declines than most other areas of the economy. As of October, local government jobs excluding education are down by a smaller but still significant 4.8% since before the pandemic hit the United States in February, while state government workforces have remained relatively flat nationally. Overall, public sector jobs have experienced more severe losses than at any point during the Great Recession and subsequent recovery.
Change from February to October 2020
Note: Data shown for select major industries employing at least 1 million workers.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, preliminary seasonally adjusted estimates, accessed Nov. 6, 2020
In 2021, school districts and colleges will continue to confront multiple headwinds. 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.
Barb Rosewicz is a project director and Mike Maciag is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health initiative.
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