Multidimensional Crisis Facing the U.S. Public Education System
Teacher shortages, learning loss, mental health concerns, and a potential fiscal cliff are taking their toll on the U.S. public education system.
It’s the start of the school year and the second start since the onset of the pandemic. But what hopefully was going to be a return to normal for U.S. primary education continues to look like a state of crisis: teacher and other non-professional staff shortages, dramatic declines in student achievement, and an education system affected by political polarization are taking its toll. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing issues and created new challenges for school districts across the nation.
Assessing the Current Teacher Shortage
The most immediate challenge facing school districts is a teacher shortage. Reporting on BLS data showed that about 300,000 public school teachers and staff left their jobs between February 2020 and May 2022, a 3% decrease in the workforce. Recently the National Education Association (NEA) warned there is a shortage of educators and staff.
A poll by the NEA found that:
A staggering 55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned … a significant increase from 37 percent in August  and is true for educators regardless of age or years teaching, driving buses, or serving meals to students.
Still, according to The Economist and others, the teacher shortage is not new. Many states are struggling to staff their schools, but those that have made public education a priority face fewer labor challenges. New Jersey ranks highly on many educational measures and the state was fully staffed last year. By contrast, Alabama ranks low on achievement and the state needed to fill over 3,000 vacancies, about 7% of its teaching positions.
Finding teachers for certain subjects, like mathematics and special education, has been difficult for many years. The feelings of underappreciation only get worse in places with chronically low pay. To compensate, some schools have been moving to four-day schooling weeks or shorter academic years — but this could have a long-term affect on student outcomes.
Teacher Education Programs Desperately Seek Students Inside Higher Ed
Figuring Out When to Panic About “Teacher Shortages” Education Next
How Virtual Learning Effects Student Learning
Last week, it was revealed that performance of 9-year-olds in math and reading has dropped to levels not seen in decades as result of remote learning. While the declines impacted virtually all racial groups and economic strata, they were particularly steeper among the lowest-performing students.
A national study by Harvard scholars and other researchers of 2.1 million students showed “high poverty schools not only spent more weeks in remote instruction during 2020-21, but their students suffered larger losses in academic achievement when they did so.” The authors concluded remote learning is likely responsible for widening the achievement gap and worsening inequality.
There is also evidence that the pandemic had a negative impact on students’ mental health. A CDC study of nearly 1,300 parents of children ages 5 to 12 years old in 2020 found nearly 25% of parents whose children received virtual education or combined instruction reported a deterioration in their kids' mental or emotional health, compared to 16% of parents who had children receive in-person education. Some schools have been allocating their federal stimulus money toward more mental health resources for students.
Remote learning likely widened racial, economic achievement gap The Harvard Gazette
Financial Implications for School Districts
The pandemic has also put a financial strain on school districts. Many districts are facing budget cuts because of declining enrollment and state revenue shortfalls — particularly in states were aid “follows the student.” This is leading to layoffs and program cuts despite an influx of federal stimulus aid. A May Back of the Budget covered how the Pennsylvania’s charter school funding system is undermining public schools, and just last year pandemic related costs were contributing to financial struggles in the San Francisco school district prompting the possibility of stringent state oversight.
Through the various COVID-related stimulus bills three allocations were made to the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. The last stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), provided nearly $123 billion in relief, the single largest-one-time federal investment in public education. In total nearly $190 billion of education aid was made available to the states, about five to six times the annual federal spending on K-12 education according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
According to a survey by the Association of School Business Officials, districts used ESSER I and II funds for equipment to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and improving remote learning. The third round of funding was mostly used to address learning loss and provide more mental health services.
But not all districts are finding it easy to allocate funding and finance officers are concerned of an impending fiscal cliff once the stimulus dollars run out. According to the City of Detroit Schools Superintendent, federal funding “provided a budget gap” for the district as it saw a decline in student enrollment during the pandemic (state aid is allocated on a per pupil basis). But in Ohio, the Dayton Daily News found:
Some local districts haven’t spent any of the latest round of funds, which accounts for more than half the total since the pandemic began, while others expect to spend it all this calendar year. On average, Ohio districts have spent only 15%.
School districts want more time to spend the ESSER funding which runs out by the end of 2024. A survey by ASSA, The School Superintendents Association, found approximately half (49%) of respondents reported that a later deadline would allow them to retain recently hired staff and extend added programs.
District spotlights how COVID relief money is helping to address staffing Chalk Beat Detroit
What to Do?
All of these challenges are causing a significant strain on school districts and the quality of public education in the U.S. The pandemic has exposed deep problems in the education system and it’s not clear how they will be fixed.
There needs to be continued investment in schools and teachers.
More needs to be done to counter learning loss and that starts by making sure all students have access to a quality education.
Schools need essential resources for teachers and to create policies that support families, learning, and mental health.
Any opinions expressed herein are those of the author and the author alone.