‘Groundhog Day’: Public School Staffing Is Caught in a Time Loop

Antonucci: Sound alarms over a shortage, dramatically increase funding, hire lots of staff, let people go. That's the pattern — & it's happening again

A photo of Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in a scene from the film 'Groundhog Day'
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

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You’re probably familiar with the 1993 movie comedy Groundhog Day, in which the main character finds himself reliving Feb. 2 over and over again. Despite his best efforts to break the cycle, he keeps returning to the same starting point.

This is known as a time loop, and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction states, “When memories of past circuits of a time loop are permitted, there is the possibility of transforming the imprisoning circularity into an upward spiral, a learning curve.”

But what is a possibility in science fiction is a futile dream in the world of U.S. public education. Those in charge of properly staffing schools, districts and state agencies seem incapable of escaping the same patterns of hiring and layoffs over a period of many years.

The cycle begins with alarms about teacher shortages. These claims go back decades and almost always focus on unfilled positions rather than the actual number of teachers employed and the actual number of students enrolled.

Legislatures then appropriate additional funding as an enticement. Much of this money goes to raises for educators already in the profession, but it also allows school districts to create openings for classroom teachers, specialists and support employees.

As an aside, when wealthy suburban school districts create openings, they attract not only new teachers, but experienced educators from poor urban districts. This leaves the poor districts with less experienced veterans and new recruits.

Eventually, something puts a stop to the accelerated hiring. The effects of the recession hit public education in 2009. Local school districts had added 84,000 employees between September 2007 and September 2008. By September 2009, 68,000 were gone.

Unions didn’t take these layoffs lying down. The National Education Association claimed 300,000 jobs would be lost without immediate action. This led to what was commonly referred to as the edujobs bill in Congress. Ultimately, the reduction in the public education workforce was held to less than 1%.

There was no acknowledgement that many of the laid-off employees were the very same people who had been recruited into the profession just a year or two earlier. “Last in, first out” seniority rules sealed their fate.

The edujobs bill simply postponed the effects of the recession for a while. Staffing levels continued to fall through September 2012. But they picked up again every year thereafter, surpassing pre-recession levels by September 2019.

The cycle continued with the unexpected COVID pandemic in March 2020. With virtually all public schools closed, by September 2020 local districts were employing 550,000 fewer people.

This was quickly followed by an unprecedented $122 billion federal aid package. Hiring bounced back almost immediately. The latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show local school districts now have more employees than in any other September in history.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. While teacher shortage stories still dominate press coverage, analysts like Chad Aldeman, Marguerite Roza and Jill Barshay tie the record number of school employees to the record drops in student enrollment and warn of the next crisis in the cycle: the so-called fiscal cliff.

The 2023-24 school year will be the last one for the federal COVID relief money, which means states and school districts will have to fund all those raises and new hires from their own budgets. Some will raise taxes to do so, while others will start to prune employees.

Considering that time loops are a fictional/theoretical condition, it is remarkable how much space on the internet is devoted to escaping one. Most solutions adhere to the “learning curve” method, in which the time loop captive escapes through trial and error, ultimately finding the way out. But it seems that those running the nation’s school systems agree with this writer from the Deseret News: “To escape the time loop, we must realize that we are all stuck in a time loop and there is no escape.” In other words, this is the circumstance that exists, and the time loop captive must make peace with it.

Which probably means that when the alien invasion of 3023 leads to layoffs in the public school system, an AI-integrated humanoid robot will be writing a version of this very same column.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

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