It has been well documented that fiscal austerity was a catastrophe for the recovery from the Great Recession. New estimates show that without sufficient aid to state and local governments, the COVID-19 shock could lead to a revenue shortfall of nearly $1 trillion by 2021 for state and local governments. In lieu of substantial federal investments, budget cuts are certain. But I, for one, did not expect to see the losses as soon as April. As of the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), state and local government employment fell by 981,000, with the vast majority of losses found in local government. And the majority of those local government losses are in the education sector, with a loss of 468,800 jobs in local public school employment alone.
State and local government austerity in the aftermath of the great recession contributed to a significant shortfall in employment in public K–12 school systems, a shortfall that continued through 2019. The figure below shows that, as of early 2020, public employment in elementary and secondary schools had yet to recover the level it had reached prior to the losses of the Great Recession. Furthermore, employment levels in the public education system have failed to keep up with growth in public school enrollment since 2008. As of September 2019, the start of the most recent pre-pandemic school year, local public education jobs were still 60,000 short of their September 2008 level, and they were over 300,000 lower than they would have needed to be to keep up with public school enrollment.
Then, the pandemic hit and local education jobs dropped sharply. More K–12 public education jobs were lost in April than in all of the Great Recession. And that’s before any austerity measures from lost state and local revenue have been put in place. A look at the Current Population Survey reveals that losses in public education were concentrated in certain occupations. While some teachers were spared, namely elementary and middle school teachers, others were not. Half of the job losses in K–12 public education between March and April were among special education teachers, tutors, and teaching assistants. Not only are these job losses devastating to those no longer getting a paycheck, but they negatively impact the education students receive. Other significant job losses occurred among counselors, nurses, janitors, and other building maintenance workers. Without sufficient staffing, we cannot safely reopen schools and get parents back to work—which will in turn hamper economic recovery.
April’s job losses are huge in and of themselves, but it’s an even bigger problem that additional public education job losses have probably already occurred—we will find out more details when the May jobs data comes out this Friday.
What we know from the last recession is that states that preserved or grew their public-sector workforce fared better, with fewer job losses overall, fewer private-sector job cuts, less growth in unemployment, and faster job growth. In lieu of sufficient federal investment, it will be impossible for state and local governments to withstand the expected shortfall in revenues from the current economic disaster and return to their pre-pandemic employment levels, levels still significantly below where they should have been to keep up with student enrollment.