Public schools ‘unable to compete’ with private sector as thousands of K-12 staffers quit during back-to-school season

Janitors, cafeteria workers and teachers appear to have one thing in common: They’re fed up.

In September, 21,700 school workers left their jobs, according to the latest government data. This includes everyone from teachers to janitors at public schools. The number of K-12 school workers fell to 7,755,400 in September from 7,777,100 in August.

To put those figures in context: In March 2020, before the coronavirus took a toll on the U.S. economy, more than 8 million public-school staff were in the workforce. 

Nationwide, there is a shortage of 300,000 teachers and other school workers, according to the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country.

Schools have been struggling to fill positions across the board, said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. “It is every position in our schools,” he told MarketWatch.

“Custodians and maintenance workers, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals who are also known as teacher assistants, front-office staff, school counselors, school social workers, and then, of course, our instructional teachers,” he added.

“So it runs the gamut, everyone is struggling to fill positions throughout the state and throughout the nation, and it’s all positions in our public schools,” Spar said. 

Public education remains one of the least recovered sectors of the pandemic. Teachers reported high levels of stress during the early days of the pandemic, dealing with long working hours, less pay and navigating technical difficulties related to remote teaching. 

The labor shortage in other service sectors also made school workers harder to retain, Spar said.

Teachers reported high levels of stress early in the pandemic, dealing with long working hours, less pay, and remote teaching. 

The private sector has been boosting benefits to attract more workers, with many companies raising wages and offering better perks.  

“In some cases, the share of lower-wage, in-person job postings advertising key benefits more than doubled from August 2019 to August 2022,” according to an analysis by Indeed Hiring Lab. Those improved benefits related to health insurance, paid time off and retirement plans, wrote AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

At the same time, public education has faced underfunding at the state level, which resulted in underpaying all school staff, not only teachers, Spar said. One 2020 study found that schools were underfunded by $150 billion, a situation that impacts up to 30 million K-12 students.

Case in point: Many support staff in Florida school districts are earning “poverty wages,” according to the Florida Education Association.  A “living wage” for a single person is $35,858 a year in Florida and $70,504 for a single parent with one child, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator.

Spar said the public-school system was “just not able to compete” with the private sector.

K-12 school vacancies hovered at 10,771 in Florida by August 2022. This included 6,006 teachers and 4,765 support staff, according to calculations by the Florida Education Association. A few weeks into the school year, some positions were filled, but the state is still facing more than 5,000 vacancies for teachers and support staff each, Spar said.

Last month, Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news outlet covering education, spoke to 80 teachers who had left the profession. Among the reasons they gave for leaving: lack of respect and support, the need for higher pay, and more job flexibility.

Ingrid Fournier, a former teacher in Branch, Mich. who left her 25-year teaching career in 2022, told Chalkbeat: “Class sizes increase, pay and benefits have decreased, support for teachers and administrators has drastically decreased. Privatized busing, custodial, and substitute programs have really taken a toll because the sense of community has dwindled as a result.”

‘What keeps me up at night is how to keep schools open and operating during the pandemic and amid staffing shortages.’

Salaries vary widely for school workers. Kindergarten and elementary-school teachers earn a median of $61,350 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares to $29,760 per year for school janitors and building cleaners, and $27,170 for dining-room and cafeteria workers.

It’s difficult for some teachers to even afford to live in the area where they work. The Milpitas Unified School District’s Board of Education in California approved a workforce housing resolution Aug. 23 that detailed how moderate-income people working for the district were finding it difficult to get places to rent close to their jobs, according to KRON-TV in San Francisco and a copy of the resolution provided to MarketWatch. 

The district told parents via a school communication app that it had lost seven teachers in the past school year over cost-of-living issues, and requested that parents with extra room rent the space to teachers, according to KNTV, an NBC affiliate in the Bay Area. 

Such stories provide context for the vacancy rate in public education. There were 292,000 openings in state and local government education, which contains all public K-12 and higher education, a record high for August, according to separate data provided by the American Federation of Teachers, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. 

A school district superintendent in North Carolina told MarketWatch in August that zero applicants applied for the six openings in his district, and that was two weeks before the school year started.  

A nationwide school bus-driver shortage is also affecting students’ ability to arrive at school on time: 88% of school transportation professionals and educational leaders surveyed said bus-driver shortages have constrained their transportation operations, according to a recent survey by HopSkipDrive, a school ride-service company. 

Some 94% of respondents said they have staffing shortages from teachers to librarians and administrators, the survey found. “What keeps me up at night is how to keep schools open and operating during the pandemic and amid staffing shortages,” said John French, a superintendent in the survey.  

The staffing shortage affects all students, but some could be more vulnerable to the impacts. Not having enough teaching assistants, for instance, could mean not enough people to help with students with special needs, Spar said. 

“Teachers and staff who work in our public schools care about kids and they want to do right by kids. But so often they are faced with so many obstacles that they ultimately give up and walk away,” he said. 

(Emma Ockerman contributed to this story.)

Also see:

‘That’s an extra $2,600 this year’: Breastfeeding mothers tell MarketWatch they’re struggling to keep up with the weekly grocery bill

‘I want them to go to sleep with full stomachs’: One mother tells MarketWatch how inflation upended her family’s mealtime

‘The best I can do is email you’: When this Native American family’s high-speed data ran out, their kids’ remote schooling came first

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