Following the pandemic-related school closures, educators and politicians warn that the United States is getting hit with a wave of teacher retirements. To forestall what some predict will be an impending teacher shortage, local and federal officials are demanding big pay hikes to attract and retain new classroom personnel.
New York City has already granted its teachers a 21 percent wage hike over five years, part of a deal that also included a $3,000 ratification bonus for union members. Los Angeles recently granted its teachers a three-year, 21 percent wage bump that will bring the average salary of a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School district to $106,000 annually. Senator Bernie Sanders, meantime, has called for federal legislation mandating a national minimum salary for teachers.
Much of the discussion around teacher shortages and pay, however, lacks context. Though some districts did see teachers and other staff exit during the pandemic, the ranks of teachers and other instructional personnel in public schools had grown for years pre-Covid, even as the number of students is now falling. The result: the ratio of students to teachers is at all-time lows, while spending per pupil has soared. Much of the money that districts are using to boost pay comes from one-time federal grants. Districts will soon need to cut spending dramatically or tap taxpayers to help pay for the rich new contracts.
Since 2014, the quantity of instructional staff (teachers, classroom aides, guidance counselors, principals, and other supervisors) has risen in public schools to nearly 3.8 million—a gain of about 188,000 positions, or 5 percent, according to National Education Association estimates. That includes about 62,000 teachers and 47,000 principals and supervisors.
Over the same period, public school enrollment fell to about 48.8 million children, from 49.9 million, a 2 percent loss. While enrollment wasn’t growing substantially before the pandemic—thanks to declining birthrates and the rising success of nontraditional schools like charters in attracting students—the school population has plunged since 2020, a consequence of extended Covid shutdowns that sent parents fleeing public schools.
Even with the pandemic in the rearview mirror, kids are not returning to public schools. In the school year just under way, the NEA estimates ongoing enrollment losses, bringing the ratio of students to teachers to historical lows—from 15.9 students per teacher in 2014 to the current level of 15.3. If somehow a teacher shortage looms, it has yet to show up, even in the NEA’s own estimates.
In almost all districts across America, funding is tied to enrollment. But starting in 2020 under the Trump administration, the federal government massively increased the money that it gives to local education. Some of that initially was to help schools fortify themselves against Covid, by, for instance, installing better air filtration. But even as it became clear that grammar school and high school kids were among the least susceptible to the virus, the feds kept sending larger sums to schools—money that has now found its way into contracts.
In 2020, the Trump administration and Congress delivered $79 billion to the schools, $21 billion more than the previous year. In the next two years, federal contributions rose to $117 billion and $129 billion—collectively, about $125 billion more in three years than schools would have received without those extraordinary increases.
This massive infusion has propelled spending per pupil to dizzying heights. A recent study estimated that, last year, New York public schools spent $37,000 per pupil—the kind of money that can pay tuition at a top private school. Los Angeles is now spending more than $25,000 per pupil. Nationally since 2019, spending per pupil in public schools is up 21 percent, to an average of more than $16,000.
Unions contend that inflation necessitates higher staff pay, but all the new Washington education spending has helped unleash that inflationary spiral. The largest chunk of school aid was part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, which provided roughly $500 million in discretionary aid to states, cities, and schools. That massive stimulus alone, some studies suggest, is responsible for up to 3 percentage points of our current inflation.
Advocates for higher teacher pay and swelling school budgets, led by teachers’ unions, also say that the money is essential to help students recover from the extensive learning loss that marked the Covid shutdowns. But unions themselves were among the strongest advocates for extensive closures, and unionized districts experienced some of the longest stretches of remote learning—and hence the steepest learning loss. Regardless, even union allies in the Biden administration may be powerless to keep the spigot open for public schools after Fitch’s downgrading of the federal government’s credit rating, due to persistent overspending.
The enrollment decline isn’t universal. Student enrollment in some states is growing as Covid-related migration trends change the population makeup. Florida’s public school enrollment has risen by nearly 79,000 students, or just under 3 percent, since 2020—powered partly by a 120,000 increase in the state’s under-18 population. Faced with a challenge of staffing growing school districts, the state boosted teacher pay by about $220 million this year.
But in many other places, the trend runs in the other direction—fewer students and expanding instructional staffs. The unanswered question is how shrinking schools will pay for it all.