Teacher layoffs: Did the sky fall or not?

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Since the recession began, the specter of massive teacher layoffs has been hanging over the nation's schools. The feds have repeatedly come to the rescue--even when some parts of the country didn't seem to be particularly struggling--providing funds first in the form of stimulus dollars, followed by last year's EduJobs.

So far this year there appears to be little likelihood of a comparable rescue package. The president's job bill offers the only hope, but we all know how far that one isn't going. The White House has been making the case nonetheless, supplying sobering evidence of a decline in education jobs and that as many as 280,000 "educator jobs" are at risk this school year.

Not discounting this evidence, we've been struck by the lack of reports on layoffs in newspapers this fall. Last spring, they were all reporting about school districts handing out pink slips by the thousands, but there's been little follow up on teachers converting from pink-slip status to no-job-at-all status.

We decided to survey school districts around the country to find out what happened. We sent surveys to 78 large urban districts, located in 42 states. While not a representative sample, it's usually the large urbans who feel the pain of financial cuts most acutely. Our group includes 61 of the 65 districts that are members of the Council of Great City Schools. (For a look at our survey form, go here.)

Here are the results:

In the 74 districts that responded, around 9,545 teachers--about 2.5 percent of the total number of teachers in these districts--were actually laid off (or were probationary teachers who were non-renewed for budget reasons). Excluding the uniquely bad-off California districts, that rate falls to about 1.5% across the country. About half of the districts reported no layoffs.

Three California districts--Long Beach, Sacramento, and San Diego--laid off a whopping 20 percent of their teachers. The only other districts that reduced their 2011-2012 teaching force by more than 10 percent were another California district, Elk Grove, and Dayton, Ohio. For districts to have achieved the 160,000 layoffs that many had projected last spring, the layoff rate would have had to have been closer to 5 percent.

Why are these layoff numbers so small when budget woes are apparently so big? Here's what 54 districts in the sample said they did to avoid layoffs.

Most districts (over 75 percent) simply did not replace some teachers who resigned or retired. More than half reported laying off central office employees, dismissing teachers without proper certification and not replacing them, or freezing or reducing teacher hiring. Around two-thirds had some stimulus or EduJobs funds left to use, though it's not clear how much.

What cost-cutting strategies have districts avoided? It appears few reduced the school year or opted to cut teacher benefits.

Another strategy, as recently reported in the New York Times, might have been slashing the number of classroom aides, going a long way to explain why the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 200,000 "educator" jobs have disappeared.

Not discounting the pain districts are feeling, one thing is still certain: Districts went on a hiring spree in public education over the past decade, with the teacher workforce growing at nearly twice the pace of the growth in the student population (8.7 percent vs. 4.9 percent). Next time districts feel their wallets swell a bit, we hope they might resist the urge to hire, given that it's not at all clear what it accomplished in terms of growth in student achievement. Next time, let's look to significantly better compensation for talented teachers.