Who has the better solution to the 300,000 teacher gap?

When asked about the role of government in the first presidential debate on Wednesday, both candidates touched on the importance of teachers, revealing what they would try to do to address the loss of teachers over the last several years due to recession-induced state and local budget shortfalls.

President Obama:

“But what I’ve also said is let’s hire another hundred thousand math and science teachers … and hard-pressed states right now can’t all do that. In fact, we’ve seen layoffs of hundreds of thousands of teachers over the last several years, and Governor Romney doesn’t think we need more teachers. I do, because I think that that is the kind of investment where the federal government can help.”

Mitt Romney:

“Well, first, I love great schools. Massachusetts, our schools are ranked number one of all 50 states. And the key to great schools: great teachers. So I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own.”

Romney’s comment that school districts and states should make their own decision on whether to hire teachers ignores the fact that budget shortfalls over the last four years due to a loss of revenues caused by the recession have meant school districts have been forced to lay off teachers. It’s hard to imagine this is a choice any state or school district actually wanted to make.

Sadly, Obama’s claim that hundreds of thousands of teachers have been laid off is true. The figure below shows that despite increases in the last few months, local government education, which is largely jobs in public K-12 education (the majority of which are teachers but also includes teacher aides, librarians, guidance counselors, administrators, support staff, etc.) has declined by around 228,000 over the last four years. Furthermore, public K-12 enrollment increased by 0.8 percent over this period (using enrollment growth rates found in Table 1 here). Just to keep up with this growth in the student population, employment in local public education should have grown at roughly the same rate, which would have meant adding around 62,000 jobs. Putting these numbers together (i.e., what was lost plus what should have been added to keep up with the expanding student population,) the total jobs gap in local public education as a result of the Great Recession and its aftermath is more than 300,000.

This gap means not only larger class sizes, but also fewer teacher aides, fewer extracurricular activities and a narrower curriculum. Furthermore, this number almost surely understates the real gap. Between 2008 to 2011 (the latest data available), the number of children living in poverty increased by more than 2 million. Increased child poverty increases the need for services provided through schools. Instead, public schools have fewer personnel and fewer resources to educate more students, and more students with greater needs.

The solution Obama put forward is for the federal government to get some temporary relief to school districts by providing funds to hire teachers. The federal government is in a position to do this since it can borrow funds at extremely low interest rates. In contrast, state and local governments are required to balance their budgets each year. The solution Romney put forward is to let states and school districts deal with the massive teacher deficits on their own, which, given ongoing budget shortfalls in states and localities from the low revenues in the aftermath of the great recession, would mean ongoing teacher shortfalls, and the shortchanging of students. This seems an example of a consistent theme in policy debates in which one set of policymakers says “we’re in this together” while another says “you’re on your own.”