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Hire now, fire later.  Schools full of money face a funding cliff in 2 years

California, for example, has a huge amount of money to spend on education – a proposed $71 billion for its 2022-23 budget – but little flexibility to use state funds on what kinds of projects. raises that rank and file employees are demanding, said Kevin Gordon, a longtime lobbyist for local districts in the state. The flow of public funds to specific education programs may look good to the public, he said, but it doesn’t help schools’ results.

“It’s like they give you new upholstery for the back seat of your car, but the car has no tires or gas,” Gordon said of the California education fund.

California is not alone. Without a long-term plan to maintain funding levels, the staffing gains made across the country could be undone in just a few years, said Dan Goldhaber, who studies teacher labor markets as vice president of American Institutes for Research.

“To the extent that school systems add people who believe themselves permanent additions to their workforce, they are launching a political problem into the future,” he said.

“They’re going to have to figure out how to support bigger squads, if that’s what they do with it. [federal] money,” said Goldhaber, who is also director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. “It’s not inconceivable that we’ll at least see the potential for layoffs in three or four years.”

Urban and poor school systems were already the most likely to struggle with staffing issues before Covid-19, especially for hard-to-fill jobs in special education and secondary STEM classrooms.

President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona are urging schools and states to hire and pay their way out of the hole using nearly $130 billion in federal Covid relief funds to boost educator pay and raise quickly the number of candidates ready to enter the profession.

“The US rescue plan gave schools money to hire teachers and help students catch up on lost learning,” Biden said last month during his State of the Union address. “I urge all parents to make sure your school does just that. They have the money.

Hiring or rewarding teachers and academic staff with federal funds has now become top priorities for a substantial portion of schools nationwide, according to a recent analysis by Georgetown University’s FutureEd think tank.

“There just aren’t enough teachers,” Michelle Asha Cooper, the Department of Education’s acting assistant secretary for post-secondary education, told an audience of local officials this month.

But the reported pace of hiring has raised concerns about the possibility of steep school district budget cuts in coming years if state and local revenues don’t fill the gaps left by the expiration of aid. federal.

“This teacher shortage is something we need to take very seriously,” Cooper said. It is imperative, she said, to find sustainable ways to keep schools well-staffed — not just “an option.”

Declining enrollment, efforts to increase staff above pre-pandemic levels, and hiring more workers as school district employees (instead of contractors) would increase a school’s chances of hitting a “fiscal cliff,” RAND Corporation researchers concluded after surveying hundreds of superintendents late last year. These models were most prevalent in urban school systems and those serving a majority of students of color.

“When federal money runs out, they could face a fiscal cliff. It’s unclear where the money will come from if the systems really quickly increase the permanent workforce in the system,” Goldhaber said.

Superintendents take note.

Some Nebraska schools already have to compete with fast-food restaurants or other employers who might pay more than a bus driver or classroom assistant would earn, said state education commissioner Matthew Blomstedt. At the same time, authorities are considering new training or certification requirements to bring more teachers to work.

Future problems could arise as the state experiences wage inflation like the rest of the country, he said.

“We told people to be very careful of this funding cliff,” Blomstedt said.

“The other side is that there’s a lot of pressure to spend money quickly – and now,” he added. “We’re trying to balance those worlds to make smart investments at the moment to expand the capabilities that we need right now, and understand that it might need to be contracted as we go along.”

In North Dakota, State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler’s administration has encouraged schools to establish multi-year spending plans for federal funds that focus first on summer learning, tutoring and learning. other “accelerated learning recovery” before cutting spending by 2024 to rely on the state again. and local funding.

“The rate of inflation and the labor issue certainly exacerbated what was a bit uncharted as we thought about the funding cliff to begin with,” Baesler said.

“The media or even federal leaders point out that all of our [federal relief] the money hasn’t been spent, and to use that as a sort of yardstick of whether or not we’re doing what we need to do for our students,” she said. “I really hope everyone can go back a bit.”

In California, lawmakers last year approved major investments in education to support students and teachers returning to the classroom. Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration has also pledged to continue spending on after-school care programs, nutrition services, and access to physical and mental health care.

This year, Newsom’s plan includes a 5.33% cost-of-living adjustment for districts, as it tries to keep up with inflation, which in March hit 8.5% for the past 12 months. .

HD Palmer, spokesperson for the California Department of Finance, said since 2013, discretionary spending on education has increased more than 66%, from about $42.6 billion to $71 billion. that Newsom is proposing for next year.

School districts have significant discretion over how they use those funds, Palmer said, and added that the state last year approved $2.9 billion in incentives to recruit and retain teachers.

“We have and are budgeting for significant resources dedicated to recruiting, training and retention that are in addition to substantial growth in discretionary spending,” Palmer said.

In Sacramento, teachers say the staffing problem will only get worse without serious investment.

“After the pandemic, this year is doubly difficult,” said Anna Vreeland, a fourth-grade teacher at Pacific Elementary, as she demonstrated earlier this month outside district offices alongside hundreds of employees with protests. banners and megaphones.

“We deserve respect and to be valued this year.”