In a Nutshell:
- Michigan lost over 15,000 public K-12 education jobs since last fall, one of the largest drops in the U.S.
- These job losses exacerbate an already-shrinking public school workforce and compound on-going problems some schools have with staffing certain positions.
- School districts across the state may face further downsizing as a result of state funding uncertainty in the coming years.
Practically every segment of Michigan’s economy has suffered this year as the pandemic and recession sparked massive and sudden job losses. The release this week of a new public health order suspending in-person high school instruction, will likely add more uncertainty for the K-12 workforce. One thing is certain – the pandemic has amplified the already-sizeable, long-term contraction in the number of public school jobs in Michigan.
Entering the new school year in September, Michigan’s public school workforce saw its largest year-over-year decline in over 30 years. The latest preliminary data from the federal government shows that the workforce was down 8.0 percent from the previous fall. Public schools across the state shed 15,600 jobs over the last year.1 The previous largest yearly decrease (12,100 jobs or 5.4 percent) came in the fall of 2010 and brought about by the Great Recession.
The September-to-September job losses in Michigan were much larger than many other states and the nation as a whole. The Pew Trusts recently reported that the number of jobs in public K-12 education was down 6.3 percent nationally during this period and seven states experiencing double-digit percentage declines. According to Pew, Michigan had the 16th highest year-over-year percentage loss, basically the same as Massachusetts and Minnesota.
Employment in Michigan public elementary and secondary schools has been falling since the early 2000s. This contraction has been driven primarily by the steady decline in student enrollment, a key workforce demand factor for annual school staffing needs. As can be seen in the chart below, staffing losses have outpaced enrollment declines in most years since the early 2000s. Overall, public school employment is down 32 percent since 2003, while statewide enrollment is down 12 percent.2
Change in K-12 Employment* and Student Enrollment
* September 2019 to September 2020
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Center for Educational Performance and Information
In addition to the employment declines arising from the long-term slide in student enrollment, the Great Recession created fiscal pressures that accelerated the job shedding. With district budgets squeezed by annual reductions in state aid for a number of years during economic downturn, many schools were forced to reduce or eliminate programs and staff to maintain balanced budgets. Although the state saw small K-12 employment gains in each of the last four years, the additions were not enough to erase the previous losses.
When considering the current recession, funding might not be an immediate concern for schools. Certainly it will become a serious issue the longer the downturn persists and affects state tax collections. The current-year K-12 state budget does not include any major funding reductions, but the pandemic is forcing school districts to prepare for possible future state funding reductions.3 Many districts likely held off on filling vacancies caused by regular retirements and natural attrition this summer before the start of the school year.
Further job losses were linked to concerns over COVID-19. Throughout the summer months and into the start of the new school year, employees expressed concerns regarding the safety of schools when they returned in the fall. These health concerns amplified regular staff exits and prompted a number of people to pursue early retirement or resign. Many did not want to risk returning to a classroom with the virus still spreading aggressively.
Additional job losses came with the shift to remote learning for many districts. Building closures led to layoffs and furloughs for bus drivers, custodial staff, cafeteria workers and other support personnel. These jobs represent over one-third of Michigan’s public school workforce. Given the make-up of the state’s public school workforce and the shift to remote learning for many of the state’s 1.5 million students, job losses are likely concentrated outside of the classroom. In other words, teachers may not have been affected by layoffs or reductions-in-force as much as other jobs.
The bottom-line: Michigan’s long-term K-12 workforce contraction has been amplified by the disruptions in school operations caused by the pandemic and the financial concerns arising from the current recession.
What does the current pandemic-induced employment contraction portend for students?
That, of course, is the “$64,000 Question” that policymakers must grapple with if they want to ensure Michigan students are able to thrive academically during and after the pandemic.
One policy area where this question should resonate is the teacher shortage, a topic the Research Council examined in 2019. While we were unable to identify, with the data available, a clear, broad-based educator shortage, we highlighted various factors accounting for the growing number of locally-reported teacher shortages across Michigan.
In particular, our analysis found that Michigan’s teacher retention rate was relatively low compared to other states and likely one contributor to the challenges in filling classrooms with properly certificated and highly qualified teachers. Retaining not just teachers, but all types of school personnel, has already shown to be a unique challenge during the pandemic given the health concerns surrounding in-person instruction. Compounding an already existing problem does not bode well for those concerned about educator shortages.
A significant portion of the K-12 job losses may be temporary until schools are physically reopened and students return to in-person learning. However, many may become more permanent, especially if past experience is any guide.
As we noted in our analysis of school employment impacts resulting from the Great Recession, even a very prolonged economic recovery did not allow schools to restore all of the jobs lost during the downturn. With the possibility that current job losses become more permanent in nature and given the massive losses realized thus far (at least relative to the Great Recession period), Michigan’s K-12 workforce may be in-line for a major downsizing in the coming years.
- While public education jobs fluctuate over the course of a year, comparing the same month across two or more years removes much of the employment seasonality.
- Fall 2020 enrollment numbers are not available from the state yet; however, early indications are that the pandemic has pushed student enrollments down across the state and beyond what school officials anticipated in their early planning. The fall figures are likely to show declines well in excess of what the long-term trend would suggest.
- Also, in response to the expected student enrollment declines, state policymakers adopted a modified student counting method for distributing per-pupil funding in order to lessen the financial impact from declining enrollments.