Educators, buckle up: A bumpy economic ride lies ahead

We're actually calling 2024-25 'the bloodletting,' said Dr. Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University in a webinar Thursday. "Public education has not seen this sort of right-sizing, fiscal cliff, whatever you want to call it, of this magnitude at any time, including the last recession."

“Some tough financial times are coming to school districts,” and chances are you’ve heard this before. But this is the real deal, and education leaders need to buckle their seatbelts because this is all happening amid several K-12 crises, including the national teacher shortage, transportation issues, student literacy, and cultural warfare.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, a fiscal cliff is soon approaching, bringing four economic shocks along with it for school districts. By September 2024, schools will no longer have access to their ESSER funds, which have served as a life raft for districts struggling to hire and retain teachers, something they may not be able to afford in the long run.

ESSER spending

“We’re actually calling 2024-25 ‘the bloodletting,'” said Dr. Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University in a webinar Thursday. “Public education has not seen this sort of right-sizing, fiscal cliff, whatever you want to call it, of this magnitude at any time in the past, including the last recession. I think it’s going to be quite shocking.”

According to Roza, there will be four financial shocks coming our way:

  1. ESSER is boosting spending, but that ends abruptly in September 2024.
    1. Most at risk: Districts using ESSER for recurring financial commitments via budget backfilling, new hires, or permanent raises.
  2. Enrollment declines mean fewer revenues in the long run.
    1. Most at risk: Urban districts, districts closed longer, and northern states.
  3. Inflation, labor scarcity, and new hiring are driving up recurring commitments.
    1. Most at risk: Those offering permanent raises that are larger than typical and those growing their staff roles.
  4. An economic slowdown would affect growth in state revenues.
    1. Most at risk: Districts that are more dependent on state revenue (or in states more affected by economic slowdowns).

This spring, according to Roza, districts will begin assessing their budgets and start scratching their heads.

“Most of them need to do a multiyear budget,” she said. “They’re going to be looking ahead to next year and the year after saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not going to be able to afford everything we had hoped for.'”

Reading, readiness and reform

Amid the financial difficulties coming our way, we must continue to address issues within our schools. In North Carolina, Catherine Truitt, superintendent of public instruction, said they’re shifting their attention to three key areas: reading, readiness and reform.

In terms of reading, Truitt said the state is going all in on the science of reading.

“When we see nationally 34% of 8th graders and 35% of 4th graders were reading proficiently prior to the pandemic… those statistics are worse now. We have to solve this literacy crisis in our state,” she said. “And what the research tells us is that the science of reading, or, more simply put, a phonics-based approach to early literacy instruction, is what works.”

To combat this issue, she reports, they’ve invested heavily in professional development for educators.

“We have committed through legislation and through funding to provide professional development for all pre-K through 5th-grade teachers in our state,” she said. “Our K-3 diagnostic data from last year as compared to this year is showing that our students are actually growing faster than students on that like assessment across the country.”

Career readiness, an area that continues to grow in attention among K-12 leaders, is also at the forefront of her mind going into 2023.

“I really believe that we have created a system of education in this country where the purpose of 3rd grade is to get ready for 4th grade, and the purpose of 4th grade is to get ready for 5th grade,” she said. “Achievement and testing are really important and I’m not suggesting that we move away from those things, but I really believe we need to refocus the purpose of education as being to graduate students who can be successful in whatever the postsecondary plans of their choice are. But also making sure that they know what their options are, their parents need to know what their options are, and we need to give our educators the freedom to provide learning opportunities that reflect the idea that there is something that’s going to happen after students cross that graduate stage with a diploma in hand. And that all students are on a career journey of sorts.”

“So renewing that commitment to helping public school students explore, engage and experience postsecondary pathways consistently throughout their K-12 journey is something that we’ve been focused on all last year and will continue to focus on this year.”

In terms of addressing the teacher shortage that continues to plague schools across the nation, she said schools in North Carolina fared rather well, but the pipeline into the profession is certainly shrinking.

“We are really excited to be looking at how we can redevelop our licensure and compensation system to do a better job of recruiting and retaining teachers,” she said. “We didn’t see the mass exodus of teachers in our public schools that was predicted, but we are certainly having, in North Carolina and across the nation, pipeline issues. We want to redesign that licensure system and really focus on how we can make the teaching profession that has ways to advancement that come with more dollars in pay that are tied to impact and the amount of responsibility that teachers take on.”

“We’re also going to be redesigning our school performance grade so that we are looking not just at achievement and growth as measures of school quality, but we want to look at all t different things that schools do to prepare students for the postsecondary plans of their choice,” she added. “As anyone who works in education knows, it’s not just preparing for the end-of-year high-stakes testing. There are all kinds of things schools do to be good high-quality schools. And we want schools to not just be recognized for things, but held accountable for things, because we know what gets measured gets done.”

Listening to parents and families

An October 2022 report from the Hunt Institute revealed that voters and parents alike listed their top education priorities as addressing literacy learning loss, ensuring that schools are safe places to learn, and student mental health. According to Keri Rodriguez, co-founder and founding president of the National Parents Union, she hopes education leaders design their policies based on real conversations with parents, not made-up narratives.

“I hope the implication is that we start listening to parents and families and taking it seriously instead of having a deeply distracting conversation around culture war issues, which has really put us behind the eight ball because we’ve wasted a whole lot of time arguing about critical race theory and culture war issues that really are not relevant,” she explained. “And the data tells us this—not only in that poll of 2022, but we’ve done 26 national polls and asked this question over and over again. But yet, a lot of the conversation on these panels and in conversations across the country have been dominated by that.”

“So when you ask us, ‘What are the priorities for parents and families?’, they’re what most educators actually want to do as well. I think we’re aligned. Addressing the mental health, and frankly the safety crisis we have in schools, that’s top of mind for parents. You can have the best curriculum, but if you’ve got a kid who’s so distracted and can’t sit in his seat, it doesn’t do us any good. We’re deeply worried about whether or not our kids are OK. And we want to see that same concern reflected in our school district budgets by making significant investments and making sure kids are OK so that they do have open minds and open hearts and actually access this education.”

She also argued that the transportation issue is something we must immediately address to be able to properly resolve problems surrounding students’ education and curriculum.

“Dealing with the transportation once and for all is a top priority for parents and families,” she said. “Again, we get so in the weeds about, ‘We’ve got to have curricula that are based in the science of reading,’ which is very important. But if you can’t get a kid to class because we don’t have enough bus drivers, and then once they’re there they can’t sit in the seat, it seems a little cart-before-the-horse. And this is something that we’ve seen across the nation and reflected over and over again for parents and families. But then definitely addressing the literacy crisis and the math crisis as well.”

“We love to see folks finally excited about having a curriculum that’s based in the science of reading, evidence-based curriculum. Now we want to do math next because there’s also a crisis when it comes to math proficiency in this country. Develop career pathways for our children so we have education in context so it makes sense. As early as 6th grade, parents and families, and even students—we’ve also had these conversations with kids—they want to know where they’re going and what benchmarks they should be reaching. When we talk about the priorities moving forward and what we should be focused on, we’re really hopeful because we’ve been able to quantify some of these priorities that we can actually have a sober and real conversation about how we all need to start moving forward on this stuff.”

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Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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