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US: Schools bracing for widespread teacher layoffs

May 11, 2024

Washington (CNN) — Schools across the country are announcing teacher and staff layoffs as districts brace for the end of a pandemic aid package that delivered the largest one-time federal investment in K-12 education.

The funds must be used by the end of September, creating a sharp funding cliff as schools also struggle with widespread enrolment declines and inflation.

Many districts have warned of layoffs as the current school year comes to a close and next year’s budgets are planned. The local headlines about teachers likely won’t help Americans who remain stubbornly pessimistic about the economy feel any better, adding to the challenge President Joe Biden faces to show voters how things are better than they were four years ago.

In Missoula, Montana, for example, the public school district is considering cutting 33 teaching positions and 13 administrative positions, including its special education director and fine arts director, as it faces a budget shortfall.

“The last time that MCPS (Missoula County Public Schools) saw these types of reductions was almost a generation ago,” superintendent Micah Hill said at a school board meeting earlier this year.

Not only is the federal funding ending, but enrolment at the district’s schools has fallen by nearly 500 students – or roughly 5% – since 2019. At the same time, the district is facing rising insurance and utility costs, Hill said in a statement sent to CNN.

In Arlington, Texas, the public school district will cut 275 positions at the end of this school year that were funded by the federal pandemic aid funds. They include staff that helped provide after-school care, tutoring and mental health services. The district, which employs about 8,500 staff in total, has said that employees affected by the layoffs can apply to other available positions.

And in Hartford, Connecticut, 30 teachers and 79 other staff members have been notified that they have lost their jobs. In total, about 384 positions will be cut, though some of them were already vacant and others won’t be filled after a staff member retires or leaves.

Enrolment at Hartford Public Schools is down 21% since 2010 due to a decline in the school-age population and a policy that allows Hartford residents to enrol at schools in neighboring districts.

“That is a long-term problem that has been exacerbated by the ESSER cliff,” superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said in a statement sent to CNN. ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, refers to the grant program that provided the federal pandemic-related relief funds.

Pandemic aid comes to an end

After the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Congress authorized three rounds of federal funding to help K-12 schools respond.

Between March 2020 and March 2021, lawmakers authorized $190 billion in funding for K-12 schools – roughly six times what they receive from the federal government in a normal year.

At first, many districts used the money to reopen school buildings by buying masks and cleaning supplies and upgrading HVAC systems. The last and biggest round of funding, which was approved in 2021, required districts to spend at least 20% of the money to address learning loss – which could have included tutoring programs, summer school or extended school days.

Districts were given more than three years to spend the third round of money, with few other restrictions. It was largely up to local school boards to decide how to spend the funds on a broad range of pandemic-related needs, and they could choose to hire new teachers and staff even though they knew the funding would eventually dry up.

Although districts are required to report how they are spending the money, the reports often lack details, making it hard to track how many teachers were hired with the federal funding.

But a new report from CALDER, an education research center, that looked at Washington state found that roughly 12,000 positions, including more than 5,000 classroom teachers, were created with the federal funding.

“Those are people that would not have been hired if that extra funding did not exist,” said Dan Goldhaber, one of the authors of the report.

Districts that created new positions now need to decide how – and if – to fund them going forward.

How many teachers are at risk?

It may seem counterintuitive to be concerned about teacher layoffs when many districts have been struggling to fill open positions – especially in math, science and special education subjects and in rural areas.

But that’s partly because some districts, flush with pandemic funding, have been adding positions while enrolment in public schools has been declining nationally.

It’s hard to know just how many educator jobs are at risk across the country. But if staffing levels were to fall back to the same levels they were before the pandemic in 2018-19, districts would need to lay off 384,000 full-time staff, according to Chad Aldeman, an education analyst.

Who could get hit the hardest?

The federal pandemic aid law directs states to disburse the money like they do Title I funding, which means more money goes to districts with more low-income families – and those could be the ones facing the biggest budget shortfalls now.

“Students of color and students who are attending higher-poverty districts are going to be the ones to feel the brunt of the layoffs,” said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

And when districts lay off staff, many fire the most recent hires. Peske said it’s better if districts approach layoffs with the performance of teachers in mind.

“We know that if they’re using seniority as the only criteria, they could be laying off teachers who are highly effective – and this will leave students at a major disadvantage,” Peske said.

She also recommends protecting those staff members who are in high demand, like math and special education teachers.

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