7 Years After the Recession, America’s Public Schools Still Haven’t Recovered

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"Sorry, kids."Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The years following the end of the Great Recession have produced robust recoveries in corporate profitability, Manhattan real estate, and the Miami yacht market. The same can’t be said about America’s public schools.

In May 2008, U.S. school departments employed 8.4 million teachers, administrators, and other staff. Today, they employ just 8.2 million, despite the fact that those schools now serve 1 million more students, according to Department of Education estimates. And while those teachers are being asked to serve more students, they’re making less money: According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, weekly wages for public-school teachers have declined 5 percent over the past five years.

The smaller, more cash-strapped crowds in America’s faculty lounges reflect a broader disinvestment from our nation’s future. Between 2008 and 2014 (the last year for which we have full data), state public-education funding declined 6.6 percent. While the stimulus money was still flowing, Uncle Sam was able to ameliorate this austerity somewhat, but still left schools spending 2.4 percent less per student over that period, when adjusting for inflation. And when the stimulus wore off, state and local governments failed to pick up the slack: In 2012, total school funding fell for the first time since 1977. As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes, this cutback wasn’t concentrated on administrative salaries or extravagant construction — instructional spending has fallen at roughly the same rate as overall budgets.

However, aggregating all state-level spending obscures vast disparities between individual states. As of last year, only 25 states were spending less per student than before the recession, according to recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In seven of those states, spending was down by 10 percent.

As the New York Times notes in a Monday editorial, this divergence reflects more than just the relative economic strength of different states. Schools in Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin have been devastated as much by supply-side tax cuts as by the global financial crisis. By contrast, California was able to restore much of its pre-recession school budget by levying higher sales and income taxes on wealthy residents.

Still, even states that aren’t sacrificing their children on the altar of Reaganomics could have trouble maintaining the quality of their public schools in the coming decades, absent a change in federal policy. The graying of the baby boom generation will take a toll on state health care and pension spending. And unlike the federal government, states can’t afford to run deficits (and/or print their own money). What’s more, our public education system’s current spending levels are proving insufficient to attract top talent into teaching.

In the long run, it will take either a drastic increase in federal investment — and/or the proliferation of low-cost robots — for American schools to truly leave no child behind.