With More Teachers & Fewer Students, Districts Are Set up for Financial Trouble
Aldeman: Public schools are on the cusp of hitting all-time lows in the number of students per teacher. Analysis & interactive map tell how, and whyBy Chad Aldeman | October 2, 2023
To understand the current state of the teacher labor market, you have to be able to hold two competing narratives in your head.
At the same time, the latest data suggests that public schools employ more teachers than they did before the pandemic. Thanks in part to strong state budgets and an infusion of federal funds, districts had about 20,000 more teachers in 2021-22 than they did five years earlier (a gain of 0.7%).
Meanwhile, those same schools were serving 1.9 million fewer students (a decrease of 4%). Those declines are widespread, with 35 states and more than two-thirds of districts enrolling fewer students than they did five years before.
A comparison of enrollment and staffing trends makes clear that public schools collectively reduced their student-to-teacher ratios over the course of the pandemic. In fact, American public schools are on the cusp of hitting all-time lows in the number of students per teacher.
As those figures mask tremendous variation across the country, I worked with Eamonn Fitzmaurice, The 74’s art and technology director, to help visualize how these changes are playing out in individual communities nationwide.
After screening out very small districts and those without sufficient data (marked in black), we examined staffing and enrollment trends for 9,800 districts, comparing federal data from 2021-22 — the most recent available — with 2016-17. Click on the map below for an interactive version.
School Staffing vs. Enrollment
Districts shaded orange had more students per teacher than they did five years earlier. There were 2,737 districts in one of these two categories (28% of the sample). Districts in Alabama, Louisiana and Florida, for example, are predominantly orange, meaning they have higher student-to-teacher ratios than they did before the pandemic.
But many more districts are shaded blue or gray, meaning they serve fewer students per teacher than they did five years earlier. Overall, 72% of districts in the sample fell into one of these categories.
There are three ways a district can reduce its student-to-teacher ratio. The sections below give examples of districts in each of these three categories and quantify how many districts fell into each one.
More teachers, fewer students
The clearest divergence occurs when a district has more teachers serving fewer students. New York City is the largest example in this category. According to the latest federal data, enrollment in the nation’s largest district fell by about 125,000 students (12.7%) from 2016-17 to 2021-22. Meanwhile, it employed 3.7% more teachers. The two trends were already diverging, but, when the pandemic hit and enrollment fell sharply, teacher staffing levels continued to rise.
New York City is an outlier in many ways, but it was one of 3,119 districts, or about one-third of the total in the sample, that had more teachers serving fewer students. This group also includes districts such as Elgin, Illinois; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Eugene, Oregon.
Fewer teachers, even fewer students
Another way to reduce student-teacher ratios is to downsize staff more slowly than enrollment falls. This group is exemplified by Texas’s Brownsville Independent School District, which serves about 38,000 students near the Gulf of Mexico. It has reduced its teacher count by 12% over the five-year period starting in 2016-17, but student enrollment has fallen over the same time period by 18%.
Among other districts, St. Louis; Jackson, Mississippi; and Corpus Christi, Texas, exhibit similar patterns. Slightly more than 2,300 districts (one-fourth of total in the sample) decreased their teacher counts less quickly than student enrollment fell. These districts have been making adjustments, but they may have to come into closer alignment in the years to come.
More students, but even more teachers
The last category is districts where enrollment is growing but teacher counts are rising even faster. The Katy Independent School District, near Houston, is representative of this group. Its staffing and enrollment lines were growing in parallel until the pandemic hit. Since then, student enrollment growth has slowed while staffing growth did not. All told, the district is now serving 17% more students than it did five years before but employs 22% more teachers.
About 1,600 districts (one-sixth of the sample) are following a similar trajectory. These are typically faster-growing communities, and they include districts such as Irvine, California; Hays, Texas; and Ankeny, Iowa.
Caveats, questions and what might come next
This analysis is capturing change over time, and it’s not meant to pass judgment on any particular district’s staffing levels at any given point in time. It’s possible that a district was understaffed in 2016-17 and remained so in 2021-22.
Some readers may naturally cheer the increased staffing levels as one potential solution to getting kids back on track after the pandemic. But research on class size reductions suggests their success depends on a variety of factors. And they can be expensive. Recent estimates of a law passed last year mandating low class sizes in New York City pegged the additional staffing costs at $1.6 billion a year.
This analysis is limited to teachers because they are the staffers for whom districts have the most complete data, and teaching positions have been more stable than other types of staffing within schools. Although the data in this piece ends in 2021-22, the trends have continued since then — student enrollments are projected to continue to fall nationally, while public schools have only added to their payrolls over the last year.
That said, the district-level totals certainly may be masking staffing challenges at particular schools, and they are likely hiding specific shortage areas such as math, science or special education.
Still, this analysis gives a sense of how communities’ teacher staffing levels have changed due to the pandemic. It may also help identify districts that are most in danger of layoffs in the coming years, if they were using one-time federal relief dollars to avoid making layoff decisions or to bring in additional educators to help students get back on track.
Ultimately, a district’s funding is at least partially tied to how many students it serves, and the reductions in per-student staffing levels over the last few years may be unsustainable at current levels.
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