Teachers’ unions battle staff shortages


As schools across the region and throughout Missouri and Illinois face teacher shortages, raising pay and using federal relief funds to invest in the education workforce are critical to solving staffing shortages in K-12 public schools.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in public K-12 elementary and secondary schools declined by 4.7 percent from 2019 to 2021. Household survey data shows the number of employed teachers fell by 6.8 percent, bus drivers by 14.7 percent, and school custodians by 6 percent.

One of the problems, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), is that many K-12 school support staff – 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 age 50 or older is 66.2 percent – more than double their share in the economy overall. Similarly, more than half of public-school food service and custodial workers are age 50 or older.

The other key issue, according to the report, 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, the report found.

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.

Bus drivers and teaching assistants are paid roughly $500 per week, around 60 percent of the overall median.

Nearly every state has experienced substantial losses in local public education employment because of the pandemic, the authors of the report note. However, many states and localities confronting shortages right now have more capacity to address funding and pay issues than they have had in decades as a result of Congressional pandemic relief funding.

“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,” he added.

The current gap in K-12 education employment follows huge employment losses in public education after the Great Recession of 2007-09 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.

Accordingly, Cooper and report co-author Sebastian Hickey, a research assistant at EARN, urge policymakers to dedicate increased long-term funding to public education to bring lasting reforms.

“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,” Hickey said.

“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.”


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