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3 not-quite-true claims about the pandemic and schools

Students wearing face masks seated behind desk shields.

English teacher Ms. Longhitano teaches a second period class at Middletown High School in Middletown, CT, October 6, 2020. Despite the pandemic, there’s no evidence yet that teachers are leaving in record numbers.

Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on American education. Most students fell behind  academically, and racial and economic gaps widened. High school graduation rates dropped in many states last year, halting two decades of progress. Schools are facing crippling shortages of substitute teachers and bus drivers. And tens of thousands of children have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID. 

It’s a blizzard of real and alarming data points. But some other common, fear-inducing claims about the state of American schooling are inaccurate or unproven, although they may contain an important grain of truth.

Here are three, and what we really know.

1. Claim: The pandemic has prompted a teacher exodus.

COVID-19 has thrown a lot at teachers: remote and hybrid instruction, masking rules, health concerns, and a dearth of substitutes. It’s not surprising that teacher stress is up and many say they’re thinking about quitting.

The National Education Association recently found that over half of its members said the pandemic had made it more likely they would leave their jobs. One news piece declared, “Teachers have quit in droves during the pandemic.”

But claims of a coming — or ongoing — teacher exodus warrant considerable skepticism. That’s both because we don’t yet have data to support strong assertions and because recent history suggests that an exodus is unlikely.

Right after the pandemic shuttered schools in spring 2020, some surveys found large shares of teachers were considering leaving that summer. In fact, teacher turnover dipped going into the 2020-21 school year, according to data from a number of states and school districts. 

Data on turnover going into the 2021-22 school year is still emerging, but so far there is no indication of a big spike. In South Carolina, for instance, teacher turnover was up but similar to pre-pandemic levels.

In general, teacher turnover doesn’t change much year to year. Data spanning 35 years in Washington state — a time period featuring economic downturns and booms and significant educational policy changes — showed remarkable stability: during that time, the share of teachers leaving jobs in public education fluctuated between 6% and 8%. Data from Texas going back to 2006 shows that no more than 11% of teachers left the classroom in a single year.

We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that there will be more teachers leaving, of course. But reliable data about this year isn’t here yet. 

2. Claim: Enrollment declines are going to leave schools in a long-term budget lurch.

Public schools lost some 1.3 million students last academic year, and those numbers haven’t bounced back. Many assume that this foretells disaster for school budgets. “If the trend continues, that will mean less money for public schools,” one recent article claimed.

This is not necessarily true, though.

Think of school funding as a big pie, with each student getting a sliver. When a student leaves one school for another, they typically bring their slice of funding (or at least part of it) with them. That means the school or district they leave may have to cut back.

But when a student departs public education for private school or homeschooling — as many of those students likely did during the pandemic — they usually don’t take their slice of the pie with them. That means that everyone else’s slice can get a tiny bit bigger, assuming the size of the pie doesn’t change.

That last part is key. Overall funding for schools depends on the health of the economy and politicians’ tax-and-spending decisions. It’s possible that enrollment drops will weaken the resolve of lawmakers to fund education. But that’s far from inevitable. Before the pandemic, spending per student actually tended to increase more in states where public school enrollment was falling. 

“If your budget is growing and K-12 enrollment is declining ... you have flexibility in your budget,” said Bruce Baker, a school funding researcher at Rutgers University. State lawmakers in Colorado recently noted that fewer students gives the state the opportunity to boost the budget for the students who remain.

Right now, public schools are flush with cash, even though enrollment is down — proof that there is no inevitable relationship between dollars and students. Much of that is due to one-time federal aid, but additional federal support could be forthcoming as President Biden seeks to increase Title I. 

An important caveat: School districts that are losing students faster than the state as a whole do have reason to worry. Those places might have to reduce the number of staff or even schools.

3. Claim: Parents are widely dissatisfied with their children’s schools.

It’s clear that a meaningful number of parents are upset about their child’s education. Some are showing up at school board meetings concerned about mask mandates and “critical race theory” in schools. Others want stricter mask enforcement or a greater emphasis on racism in the curriculum. Some parents remain frustrated with continued disruptions due to COVID, while others want more robust virtual options.

So it might be surprising to learn that polls continue to show that most parents are fairly pleased with their child’s school. 

One recent survey asked parents to give their child’s school a letter grade for their COVID policies and how they are addressing learning challenges, among other things. In every category, 57 to 71% of parents gave schools an A or B, with few parents — usually around 15% — awarding a D or F. Similarly, a poll of parents of students with disabilities from this fall found that most rated public schools good or excellent in responding to COVID.

Remarkably, this has held true throughout the pandemic. In a poll conducted after last school year, over three-quarters of parents said they were somewhat or very satisfied with the instruction and activities at their child’s school. Polls in the spring of 2020 found that a majority of parents gave schools high marks for quickly transitioning to virtual instruction. 

A Gallup poll from last year found that parent satisfaction with their child’s education had fallen a few percentage points compared to the years before the pandemic, but remained high.

It’s not entirely clear what’s going on. But this survey data does show that some parents aren’t happy, especially in public schools. It’s possible those dissatisfied parents are now highly dissatisfied. 

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