The school staffing paradox: A growing workforce in shrinking classrooms

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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