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What's Behind an Eye-Popping Drop in Education Jobs, and What's Next?

Schools are a major driver for the local economy. Aside from the 3.8 million teachers they employ nationwide, there's also more than 3 million paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, after-school workers, and others who rely on school districts for a paycheck

So when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics last month reported that there was a precipitous drop in local education jobs in April, it got plenty of attention from economists, mainstream publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and, most recently, the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank that focuses on the impact that the economy has on low and middle-income workers.

But the looming COVID19 budget cuts for K-12 schools in most states and their economic impact have yet to occur, and the vast majority of the nation's districts have yet to lay off staff in response. 

So what's behind these federal numbers showing education job losses?

It turns out that the BLS considers hourly workers at schools unemployed if a school is closed—as they are every summer, for example. And because the nation's entire public school system unexpectedly began closing up on-site instruction starting in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the bureau counted more than 468,800 public school employees as unemployed in April, a huge jump from when schools were opened in a corresponding period last year. In its press release, the bureau pointed out as much:

"Employment in local government was down by 801,000, in part reflecting school closures ... Payroll employment in education declines by about 20 percent at the end of the spring term and later rises with the start of the fall term, obscuring the underlying employment trends in the industry. Because seasonal employment changes at the end and beginning of the school year can be estimated, the statistics can be adjusted to make underlying employment patterns more discernable."

But the report is a reminder of how the abrupt closing of schools resulted in hundreds of thousands of employees getting fewer paychecks than they anticipated this year.

When schools were closing in March because of the pandemic, many districts told their hourly workers that they'd be able to keep them on the payroll for the rest of the school year. But as state sales and income tax receipts started falling short, many school boards, anticipating massive budget cuts this summer, reversed course and furloughed their hourly employees

Within the next two years, K-12 finance experts expect for schools to make up to $300 billion worth of cuts and layoff more than 350,000 people due to the economic downturn.

Already, in response to the dramatic dip in local revenue, school districts, including in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Missouri, have cut millions of dollars out of their budgets, forcing local districts to issue pink slips to thousands of workers.

Brookline, a 7,500-student, middle class, suburban district outside Boston, sent an e-mail to district employees this week saying it was forced to lay off an unnamed number of teachers and other staff members to close a $6.3 million budget deficit because of the virus.  More layoffs will likely come later this year, the superintendent said in the e-mail. 

"They don't realize the level of terror that people feel right now, in terms of their economic livelihood," Jessica Wender-Shubow, the president of the teachers union, said to the Boston Globe

The superintendent in Jamestown, N.Y., sent a budget out to local residents to be voted on that would lay off more than 40 staff members to close a $14 million budget deficit, according to the Spectrum News. The district, with 4,500 students, is more than 75 percent low-income.Fewer than 30 percent of its elementary students can read at grade level. 

The superintendent, Bret Apthorpe, told the school board he's reluctant to raise the local property tax since the unemployment rate is so high, and said that if the federal government doesn't soon provide extra aid, the district anticipates having to lop off more than 20 percent of its budget.

"Quite frankly, I don't even know how we would do that," Apthorpe told the Spectrum News. He described this summer's budget cutting as the worst he's seen in his 33 years in the field.  "How we would run a school. That would be the complete elimination of every extracurricular activity and every extra program." 

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