(Colorado News Connection) As school districts across Colorado struggle to keep their doors open because of staffing shortages, a new Economic Policy Institute report suggests that states should tap billions in unspent COVID relief funds to make long-overdue investments in the education workforce.
David Cooper, report author and senior policy analyst with EPI, said raising pay will be essential for bringing back and keeping high-quality teachers and support staff.
"Pay in public schools is quite low, particularly for support staff," said Cooper. "Folks like bus drivers, custodial workers, food-service workers - the staff who are essential to schools operating and providing safe, healthy learning environments."
Public-school bus drivers and teaching assistants earn roughly $500 per week, while food service workers earn just $331.
Colorado lost nearly 15% of its bus drivers between 2019 and 2021, and nearly 7% of its teachers, a number which the report warns could put student achievement and the long-term success of schools at significant risk.
Cooper admited that if lawmakers do use COVID relief dollars for education, it would amount to a one-time investment, and not cover ongoing costs including increased salaries.
But he said the public health emergency has made it very clear that the economy cannot function if schools aren't open.
"If people don't have a place to send their children so that they can go to work, where they know those kids are going to be safe, and learning something," said Cooper, "the rest of the economy is not going to work. So we have to spend whatever it takes to make sure that schools can operate effectively, or we're just shooting ourselves in the foot."
The current loss of K-12 workers comes on the heels of even bigger losses after the Great Recession that were never fully restored.
Cooper said this moment of crisis for the country's schools could mark a turning point, if public officials are willing to get the ball rolling with billions in unspent relief funds.
"But the truth is most states have been reducing their expenditures in public education on a per capita basis for a long time," said Cooper. "So this may be the nudge that lawmakers need to start generating new revenues to support education for the long term."