California school staffing is extremely volatile
It distorts the national numbers, and it's probably bad for kids
The Shanker Institute had a good report recently highlighting the importance of school funding that is adequate, equitable, and stable.
Most of the attention on school finance is on the adequacy and equity angles, but today I want to do a quick dive into the stability side of the equation. Specifically, I’m going to briefly explore the tremendous staffing volatility in California.
Why should you care about staffing stability? Research suggests that staffing volatility harms students, especially if it disrupts adult-child relationships, and especially for kids who already face other forms of instability in their lives.
California is my favorite (bad) example of staffing instability. On a per pupil basis its schools spend about the same as the national average. California schools serve about 12-13% of public school students nationwide, and they have slightly lower school staffing levels than other states. For example, California has only about 8% of the public school teachers nationwide.
But what’s really striking about California’s school staffing, and the subject of today’s post, is its volatility. Namely, California schools do a lot more hiring when times are good, and they do a lot more layoffs (or other forms of shrinking) when times are bad.
This time, I’m looking at total employment trends. California is the red line, and the lighter gray line represents the rest of the U.S. See how much more volatile California’s school staffing is compared to the rest of the United States?
Let’s focus in on two periods, starting with the Great Recession and its aftereffects. From 2009, when public school hit a temporary peak nationwide, to 2013, when it first began recovering, public schools lost a total of 307,000 FTEs. That represents a decline of 3.8% over four years. That’s the dip in the gray line right in the middle of the graph.
Over the same time period, California schools lost 68,000 FTEs, a decline of 7.9% from its peak. All told, California accounted for 22.2% of all K-12 job losses during the Great Recession. (Remember, California only serves about 12% of students.)
The same thing happened again in 2020 and 2021. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools nationwide lost 235,000 FTEs, a decline of 3.0%. But California schools accounted for 51,000 of those, a 5.9% loss. Again, California schools made up a disproportionate share (21.6%) of the job losses nationwide.
This might just be a neat statistical quirk, but I suspect it has negative implications for kids. California has made major strides in the last decade on the adequacy and equity fronts, but its schools are still suffering on the stability side of the ledger.