U.S. public schools, focus of debate on reopening, are unsung economic force

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the debate rages over how to safely reopen U.S. schools this autumn, one factor weighs heavily: the nation’s 98,000 public “K-12” schools are a cornerstone of the economy, and a massive jobs engine.

Nearly 51 million American kids attend public elementary, middle and high schools, compared to about six million in private schools. The educated workforce and childcare the system creates have been key drivers of economic growth.

With a total workforce of about eight million Americans before the pandemic, kindergarten through 12th grade public education is also one of the largest U.S. employment sectors, exceeding construction, hospitals, finance and insurance and transportation and warehousing.

Total expenditures for these schools were $721 billion during the 2018 fiscal year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

That is more than the U.S. Defense Department’s $671 billion budget that year, or the Pentagon’s $705 billion request for fiscal 2021.

The Trump administration, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been pushing for schools to physically reopen in the fall as U.S. coronavirus deaths near 140,000, the world’s highest. But it has not embraced any blueprint, including federal health guidelines, for how to do that safely.

Parents, teachers and local governments are expressing growing concern, after a string of coronavirus outbreaks at day care and summer school classrooms around the country.

On Monday, Los Angeles and San Diego said their 700,000-student public K-12 schools would start online-only education in August, citing “skyrocketing” coronavirus infection rates in California.


The White House has little real sway over whether public schools will reopen – just about 8% of U.S. K-12 public school funding comes from the federal government, with the remainder split fairly evenly between state and local governments, the Census Bureau data shows.

The Department of Education says public school spending is heavily skewed toward salaries and benefits, which made up 80% of the per-pupil total spending of $12,612 in 2018. About 11% goes to purchased services and 7% to supplies.

Maintaining these jobs is particularly important for local communities because of the economic multiplier effect, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That $721 billion in public school spending in 2018 translated to about $1.08 trillion in direct GDP output, she calculates, not including the economic benefits of better-educated workers.

Although it rebounded somewhat in June, local government education employment is still down by 667,000 since March, when schools shifted largely to online instruction, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

That is nearly double the 351,000 jobs lost in local school districts after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when tax revenues and budgets withered.

The losses could increase without federal aid to state and local governments, Gould said. “They’re faced with austerity and severe cuts and education is one of the places they look.”

Many of those laid off, including teaching assistants, counselors, and maintenance workers, are likely supported by enhanced unemployment benefits, scheduled to expire at the end of July.

It is difficult to say how much school shutdowns in the fall would affect the U.S. economy. Analysis from Washington-based think tanks has focused on the long-term cost to the U.S. economy of a less skilled workforce in years to come due to school closures. But there is little data to show how closures in the fall would impact U.S. jobs and the GDP immediately.


Online-only K-12 education or closed schools may pull parents, and especially women, out of the workforce, particularly those with very young children that need more supervision.

According to a recent McKinsey & Co report on reopening schools, about 26.8 million Americans, or about 16% of the workforce, are dependent on child care in order to work.

Physically opening schools a few days a week, as has been proposed in New York City, will not help much without more federal aid for child care, said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

“This cost would be offset by the surge in labor supply and income, as parents flock back to work, helping to jump-start the economy,” Fuller said.

DeVos told CNN on Sunday that because children contract the virus at a far lower rate than adults, there is little danger for them to be back in schools.

“We know that schools across the country look very different and that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to everything,” DeVos told Fox News Sunday.

Despite the threat to their jobs, teachers are not pushing to reopen schools. A USA Today poll at the end of May revealed that one in five teachers said they were unlikely to return to their classrooms in the fall.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that nearly 1.5 million U.S. teachers, almost one in four, were at greater risk of serious illness if infected with the coronavirus due to age or existing health conditions.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)

Historically black university in Texas cancels Senator’s speech

FILE PHOTO: Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) speaks during a news conference following party policy lunch meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. on August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – U.S. Senator John Cornyn will no longer deliver the commencement address at Texas Southern University this weekend, the school said on Friday, after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed at another historically black university.

More than 800 people signed a petition started by a Texas Southern University student who opposed the university’s invitation to the Republican senator to speak at Saturday’s graduation in Houston.

The petition said Cornyn’s backing of DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, among other things, showed that he supported “discriminatory policies and politicians.”

“We have the right to decide if we want to refuse to sit and listen to the words of a politician who chooses to use his political power in ways that continually harm marginalized and oppressed people,” the petition said.

The university, which will graduate more than 1,100 students on Saturday, said every effort had been made to ensure its ceremony was a celebration that would be remembered for the right reasons.

Cornyn has been invited to meet with Texas Southern University students in the future, the school said in a statement.

Libby Hambleton, a spokeswoman for Cornyn, said in an email that the senator was honored to have been invited to speak, but that he “respects the administration’s decision and looks forward to continuing to engage with the university in the future.”

It was not immediately clear who would replace Cornyn at the ceremony.

Texas Southern University’s action came after graduates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, booed, jeered and turned their backs on DeVos in protest on Wednesday as the education secretary gave a commencement speech.

Bethune-Cookman students, alumni and political activists, angered by comments DeVos has made about historically black colleges and universities, gathered tens of thousands of signatures on petitions seeking to have the invitation to DeVos rescinded.

DeVos, who is a proponent of school choice, said in February that such schools were “real pioneers” when it came to choice, without acknowledging racism as the main factor that led to the creation of such institutions.

She subsequently noted that historically black colleges were created because other institutions were not open to African-Americans.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing Daniel Wallis)

Graduates at Florida university turn backs in protest of DeVos speech

FILE PHOTO - Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. on May 1, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – Graduating seniors at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida turned their backs in protest of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the start of her commencement speech on Wednesday at the historically black institution.

Boos and jeers could be heard as DeVos, who drew ire in February when she said historically black colleges were “pioneers” of educational choice, was introduced. Faculty and school administrators on stage stood and applauded.

Live video of the ceremony in Daytona Beach showed many graduates facing away from DeVos, though it was not clear how many of the approximately 300 seniors participated in the silent protest.

“One of the hallmarks of higher education and of democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,” DeVos told the graduates.

The university’s president, Edison Jackson, interrupted her speech with a warning to students. “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go.”

Ahead of the speech, students, alumni and political activists sought to have DeVos’ invitation rescinded, saying they were offended by her earlier comment. DeVos, who is a proponent of school choice – including charter schools and school vouchers – later clarified her remark, noting that historically black colleges were created because other institutions were not open to African-Americans.

About 60,000 signatures on two petitions were delivered to school officials on Tuesday objecting to her appearance at the university.

“Right now is not the time for Secretary DeVos to speak at any historically black college,” said Dominik Whitehead, a Bethune-Cookman alumnus who led one of the petition drives. DeVos’ statement, he said, “just shows she is out of touch.”

In a statement on Sunday, President Donald Trump said DeVos chose Bethune-Cookman for her first commencement address as education secretary to show the Republican administration’s dedication to the mission of historically black colleges and universities.

Jackson, an African-American and a Republican, and some others defended the choice of DeVos as the graduation speaker for the school, which was named for black educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Sean P. Jackson, chairman of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, said DeVos had long been a champion of providing strong education opportunities for minority students.

“The secretary says we should allow charter schools to come in and educate children if they are doing a better job than the public schools,” Jackson said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)

Trump seeks to shrink federal role in education with new order

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order on education as he participates in a federalism event with Governors at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to review the U.S. government’s role in school policy, which supporters cheered as the first step in creating more local control in education and critics worried could lead to lower quality schools in poorer neighborhoods.

DeVos has 300 days “to review and, if necessary, modify and repeal regulations and guidance issued by the Department of Education with a clear mandate to identify places where D.C. has overstepped its legal authority,” said Rob Goad, a Department of Education official, according to a transcript of a White House call with reporters.

The second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, California’s Kevin McCarthy, said the federal government had in recent years exceeded its legal authority in creating regulations and guidance

“Different people in different states and communities will have different goals and ways of achieving those goals. That is something we should celebrate and enable, not try to stop,” he said in a statement.

The Democratic National Committee, though, said the order was politically motivated, with Trump wanting something to show in school policy in his first 100 days.

The head of the American Federation of Teachers union, Randi Weingarten, said the current education law, Every Student Succeeds Act, already reduces federal power over schools, especially when it comes to standards and teacher assessments.

“What the new law doesn’t do is abandon the requirement for the federal government to protect the civil rights of our students, even if those rights run counter to what states and districts want to do,” she said in a statement.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Marguerita Choy)