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Education and Labor — What to Watch in 2022

It's an election year, so expect to see legislative action on all things relating to education. Meanwhile, government and business will be competing for talent in a labor market tighter than it’s been for a generation.

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(David Kidd/Governing)
Editor’s note: Each January, Governing produces its annual Issues to Watch, a detailed look at the legislative activities that will keep states busy for the next 12 months. We have decided to break down the report into a series of articles that tie together related issues. You can find our “Biggest Issues to Watch in 2022,” in its entirety here.


Education


A year ago, five states had made educational savings accounts (ESAs) available to parents and students. Now there are 10 such states. West Virginia makes ESAs available to nearly all students.

The expansion of ESAs, which allow students to use public funds for private school tuition or tutoring, is a prime example of the recent growth in school choice experiments. Choice proponents expect the momentum from their breakthrough year to continue into 2022. In an election year, when most legislatures will have shorter sessions, there may not be as many new programs created as last year, but there will be continuing expansion of existing programs in choice-friendly states. School choice legislation has already been introduced this year in a long list of Republican-run states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and South Dakota.

It’s also possible that changes will be pushed through the state budget process, with governors already looking to shift some federal COVID-19 dollars into ESAs. “For an election year, we’re going to see more action on things like education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships and education measures in general,” says Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank in Michigan.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to weigh in on a religious education case with major implications. In December, the court heard a challenge against Maine’s policy of banning state funding for parochial schools that engage in religious instruction and activities. The state argues it is not penalizing such schools, merely refusing to subsidize them. Plaintiffs argue that the state, which offers vouchers for secular private schools, is discriminating against religion. The court is expected to decide the case this spring. Justice have been sympathetic to religious schools in other recent cases, including a 2020 decision that overruled state constitutions that ban state aid for religious schools. If they rule against Maine, it could open the door to religious school vouchers across the country.

Choice proponents believe 2022 could be decisive in another way. They believe that political momentum is on their side, pointing especially to the results of the November gubernatorial election in Virginia, in which choice issues played out in favor of newly elected Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. If more Republicans win on a school choice platform, it will obviously embolden choice advocates to press harder. “Count me as just a little skeptical that school choice is going to be one of the most prominent political issues in the 2022 election cycle,” says Patrick Wolf, an education policy professor at the University of Arkansas. “But Republicans have pretty much embraced it and they’ve committed to it, while Democrats have to figure out what their response is going to be – and will have to develop a response that’s more family-friendly.”

It’s clear that many parents are angry about what’s happening in schools. They will be demanding greater transparency about curriculum, while many will also be pushing back against standardized testing. “Parents are going to demand a stronger role in influencing what’s taught to their kids and how it’s taught to them,” Wolf says.

Critical race theory is only a small part of this dynamic. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the question of how race and racial history is taught will continue to be a flash point issue. Nine states passed bans on the teaching of critical race theory in 2021, although Arizona’s ban was overturned by the state Supreme Court in November. Expect at least twice as many states to consider similar legislation in 2022.

The state bans are quite broad and limit the way subjects such as slavery and structural racism are taught. Opponents of the bans have noted that critical race theory, an academic doctrine taught largely in graduate and law schools, is entirely absent from K-12 curricula. They are angry about schools and libraries removing a broad range of books not just about race but also gender identity and sexual orientation from the shelves. Nevertheless, the push will continue. In December, Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he wants to allow parents and other private individuals — including corporate employees who undergo diversity training — to file lawsuits against teachers or others who run afoul of the proposed legislation’s definition of critical race theory.

Aside from the hot-button issues, schools are still struggling with how to deal with learning losses caused by disruptions from the pandemic. Helping kids make up for lost classroom time has been difficult and may become more so, as some districts revert to online and hybrid learning due to omicron outbreaks. Total school enrollment, including higher education, dropped by 2.9 million from 2019 to 2020, according to the Census Bureau. College and preschool enrollments dropped to their lowest levels in decades, while K-12 enrollment fell by roughly 2 million.

There’s been an assumption that most of those kids will come back, once the pandemic is truly in the nation’s rearview mirror. But it’s possible that many are now permanently in charters and home schooling and are lost to traditional public schools. To the extent that parents are angry at their neighborhood schools, it’s clear that, at least in red states, they can count on having more options available in the future.

— Alan Greenblatt
A welder working.
(David Kidd/Governing)

Labor


Somewhere in the neighborhood of 38 million Americans resigned from their jobs in 2021, and 23 percent of the respondents to a December Harris Poll/CareerArc survey said that they plan to quit in the next 12 months. Adjusting for inflation, the average weekly earnings of American workers decreased 1.9 percent between November 2020 and November 2021.

Among the biggest questions for 2022 is how the pandemic might further disrupt the labor market, says AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for Indeed.com, the world’s most-used job seeking site. Konkel has seen job seekers gravitate toward sectors that offer remote work and higher wages. She expects employers in the service sector to struggle the most to fill positions such as food preparation and service, cleaning, home health care and construction, work that combines health risks and low wages.

Stimulus checks and unemployment benefits helped workers stay afloat in 2021, along with historically high savings levels. Households have been spending down these funds and if this cushion thins in 2022, job seekers may be forced to lower their standards.

“I will be watching the savings rate in 2022,” says Konkel. “How that intersects with the labor market will be very interesting.”

At a time when simply going to work involved the risk of serious illness, frustrations that workers had tolerated — inadequate pay and benefits, lack of purpose, limited opportunities for advancement — became intolerable. Workers abruptly forced out of low-paying service jobs by public health orders realized they needed jobs with more security. The power dynamic shifted from employer to employee.

Strikes at major corporations, including John Deere, Kellogg and Kaiser Permanente, were one sign of this, as were efforts to organize unions by employees at Amazon and Starbucks. A bill with provisions that could override state laws restricting union activity passed the U.S. House, and another was introduced to expand the right of government workers to unionize. There’s no certainty that either will make it into law, but a Gallup poll has found that American support for labor unions is the highest it has been since 1965.

“Although employers that we speak with are fairly optimistic about the future, they also anticipate that there will be continued talent risks over the next few years, and that includes local and state government,” says Amy Holloway of the consulting firm Ernst & Young.

The health-care sector is vital to any attempt to contain the pandemic and improve workplace and school safety and stability, but 1 in 5 health-care workers have quit their jobs since the pandemic began, says Holloway, and more than a third of nurses have considered leaving their jobs.

According to Kaiser Health News, at least 300 public health department leaders have resigned since the pandemic began. Even more will leave in the coming year, says Brian Castrucci, executive director of the DeBeaumont Foundation, a public health nonprofit. He says they are being pushed out by hypercritical politicians and threats from the public. “The only people who are going to be left are those who are super passionate about public health, because right now the field asks too much of us.”

A stable school workforce is also integral to recovery, but keeping teachers in place is a serious concern. A 2021 Rand study found that 1 in 4 teachers were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the school year, up from 1 in 6 before the pandemic. Teachers were already facing heavy workloads and lack of respect before COVID-19, says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Add to that the virus’ malaise, political brawling over the teaching of honest history, organized threats of violence in schools like we saw on Dec. 17, and you see the challenges of this school year have made the current situation daunting and debilitating.”

Employers need to get a better understanding of what workers need from them, says Rivka Liss-Levinson of MissionSquare Research Institute. Better pay might be one part of this, but such things as remote work, flexible schedules, child-care support, and mental health benefits are also important.

American Rescue Plan Act funds can be used to improve working conditions for teachers, lower class sizes, hire counselors and nurses and provide wraparound services necessary to keep students engaged. “We can be intentional about addressing the root causes of teacher shortages and low morale,” says Weingarten.

Stabilizing the public health labor force would be much easier if there were a national workforce plan, supported by the federal government and the states, rather than the state-by-state approach in place now, says Castrucci. Easily accessible student loan repayment could help as well. “I think the workforce is waiting for a little recognition, a little encouragement that never comes,” he says.

— Carl Smith
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for <i>Governing </i>and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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