How does a recession affect public school students?

September 11, 2019

If the predicted economic downturn comes to fruition, many public schools will find their already stressed budgets squeezed even more. And, as a result, many administrators will head to the bargaining table to negotiate budget cuts with teachers’ unions.

So how do recession-induced cuts affect students? Negatively, according to new research from Michigan State University.

Katharine Strunk headshot
Katharine Strunk

Katharine Strunk, professor of education policy at MSU, along with co-author Bradley Marianno from University of Las Vegas, Nevada, examined how contract negotiations panned out between unions and school districts in California during the Great Recession. What they found is that recession induced-budget cuts negatively impact student performance, particularly through teacher turnover and reducing the number of teachers.

“When faced with budget constraints, school districts and teachers’ unions may make changes at the bargaining table that are not in the best interest of students,” Strunk said. “We found that unions and administrators negotiated increased class sizes, decreased the number of hours of instructional time for learning and made cuts to new teacher salaries.”

Cutting the salaries of new teachers is a problem, Strunk said.

“Many districts and schools around the country are already experiencing specific teacher shortages, so across-the-board salary cuts do not help retain new teachers or incentivize people to go into the profession, especially into already struggling districts,” she said.

Strunk and Marianno also found that teachers gained increased protection from what district administrators can ask of them. For example, in California, administrators can’t ask teachers to attend extra professional development, and they have less flexibility to address problems between teachers. These protections don’t affect the districts’ bottom lines, but they can constrain administrators’ ability to tackle educational problems.

Arial shot: Students read with a teacher in a library.

“If we believe that teachers’ unions and districts bargain in the best interest of their students, then we would hope to see cuts that do not affect the instructional core and preserve student learning, like protecting class sizes and the school schedule. But that’s not what we found,” Strunk said. “As much as some people want to blame unions, we must remember that school districts sit at the other side of the bargaining table.”

So, what are the lessons learned from negotiating teacher collective bargaining agreements during the Great Recession?

“With an impending recession and likely future budget cuts, contracts will need to be negotiated again,” Strunk said. “District administrators and unions should embark on these negotiations carefully and thoughtfully, working to keep the students’ best interests as the bottom line.”

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The paper was published in the AERA Open journal. (Note for media: Please include link to the original paper in coverage:

This story, written by Kim Ward, also appears on MSU Today.