One solution to teacher and staff shortages that’s all too obvious

The number of public school employees fell by nearly 5% between fall 2019 and fall 2021.
By: | February 13, 2022
(AdobeStock)(AdobeStock)

COVID is a big factor in the school staffing crunch but there may be a bigger culprit, particularly when it comes to bus drivers, teachers and custodians.

The number of public school employees fell by nearly 5% between fall 2019 to fall 2021, with teachers declining by 6.8%, bus drivers by 14.7%, and custodians by 6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Because drivers, food service workers and other support staff tend to be older, COVID infections is a key reason for shortages in these roles. For example, more than 66% of school bus drivers and more than half of foodservice and custodians are 50 or older, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute.

“The other key issue likely driving education support staff shortages is that these jobs are very poorly paid,” says the institute’s recent report, “Raising pay in public K–12 schools is critical to solving staffing shortages.”

For example:

  • 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% of the overall median.

When it comes to public K–12 school teachers, they are paid nearly 20% less than similar workers in other occupations, the institute has found in previous research. After leisure and hospitality, local government—and particularly education—is the hardest hit sector of the economy during the pandemic, the institute says.


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But the big influx of COVID relief funds could give district and state leaders an unprecedented chance to increase salaries for teachers and support staff. “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 the Institute’s Economic Analysis and Research Network. “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.”

State-by-state struggles

COVID has caused substantial school staffing shortages in almost every state. Some 16 states have seen losses of 5% or more, with seven experiencing declines of 8% or more. Here are the biggest drops by percentage:

  • Alaska (-17.5%)
  • Vermont (-11.6%)
  • New Mexico (-10.7%)

The gap in K-12 employment is also a lingering impact of cuts that were never restored after the Great Recession. The report’s authors are encouraging policymakers to make some COVID-era funding increases permanent to stabilize the K-12 workforce.

“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,” said Sebastian Hickey, co-author of the report and research assistant at EARN. “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.”