The Coming Upheaval in Education

There is no way to sugarcoat it. The economic impact of COVID-19 will take its toll on education funding. The National Education Association is in full freak-out mode, “calling for an additional $175 billion to stabilize education funding—the $30.7 billion authorized thus far is not nearly enough.” The California Teachers Association echoes the $175 billion figure and adds that it should be part of a $1 trillion pay-out in the next CARES Act.

Referring to the 2008 recession when class sizes increased and teachers were laid off, United Teachers of Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl insists, “We cannot go back to that.

We are currently the second-highest spending nation in the world, pouring more than $700 billion a year into education. Where do the unions think the additional billions of dollars are supposed to come from? Capital gains, withholding, corporate, and sales tax revenues are going to take a huge hit, and you can only print so much money before it becomes worthless. 

As such, education is going to have to make do with less. The question then becomes, how best to manage the cuts?

A much-too-large portion of education dollars goes toward teachers’ pensions. But at least for the time being these tax giveaways are untouchable. Another way to minimize the damage would be to get rid of the union-mandated seniority system. In California, and throughout much of the country, this antiquated quality-blind scheme leads to the last hired being the first to lose their jobs during tough fiscal times. This is unfair and injurious to both teachers and students each time it results in high-quality teachers being fired.

As reported by Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum, a recent study, consistent with many others, “shows that students entering grades where an effective teacher was laid off did worse on state tests in the future. (A teacher’s effectiveness here was measured by both principal evaluations and their impact on student test scores.) Losing an experienced teacher, rather than a novice teacher, didn’t make a clear difference.” 

Barnum adds that prioritizing experience also “requires laying off more teachers, since novice teachers are paid less.” The unions, of course, will not accept any change from their industrial-style last in/first out regimen.

Another way to mitigate the damage done by the oncoming shortfall would be to have teachers accept a salary reduction and freeze any raises for the time being. This would put a temporary end to the step-and-column method, in which teachers—no matter how talented they may be—are paid primarily by their number of years on the job. Lowering salaries could save many jobs and keep class size manageable. 

In fact, Hawaii Governor David Ige has just proposed 20 percent pay cuts for teachers and other public employees in the Aloha State. Not surprisingly, the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association claims the idea is unacceptable, telling his members, “While we recognize the coronavirus has already started to cripple Hawaii’s economy, no one can be sure of its long-term impacts. We believe cutting salaries for tens of thousands of state workers is rash and will hurt our state even more.”

Most importantly, it’s time to reexamine Benjamin Scafidi’s study on the “staffing surge” in public education. This researcher and economics professor found that between 1950 and 2015, the number of teachers increased about 2.5 times faster than the uptick in students. Even more outrageous is the fact that the hiring of other education employees—administrators, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc.—rose more than seven times the increase in students.

“If the increase in ‘all other staff’ alone had matched student enrollment growth between FY 1992 and FY 2015—the most recent staffing data available—then a cautious estimate finds American public schools would have saved almost $35 billion in annual recurring savings,” Scafidi writes. “That is $35 billion every single year from 1992 to 2015, for a cumulative total of $805 billion over this time period.”

$805 billion. You might think the teachers’ unions would support their members and scream about wasteful spending. But of course, those billions are being spent on other union members, so they are mum on the issue.

The unions have had their way in education far too long, and now their traditional way of doing business is in jeopardy due to the economic ramifications of COVID-19. Automatic quality-blind teacher raises, detrimental seniority rules, and chronic over-hiring have done great damage to education. Business as usual needs to end.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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