Pandemic’s drain on education could become an economic problem for Texas
More than a million Texans apparently lost their jobs overnight, and the state’s unemployment rate nearly quadrupled when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the economy early last year.
But a less visible impact of the pandemic – a sharp drop in the educational attainment of Texas students in the midst of the crisis – could end up having even greater negative economic consequences in the long term, according to the top public school official in Texas. the state.
“This is the biggest problem facing the state of Texas – the problem of ensuring that our citizens are educated to take advantage of the opportunities” generated by the economy in the future, the commissioner said. Texas education, Mike Morath, speaking to a Texas association on Monday. of the Trade Policy Conference in downtown Austin.
Morath, who commented at a Texas Workforce Roundtable, said the percentage of third-graders in the state who meet grade-level reading and math skills has fallen precipitously since the start of the pandemic.
“This is the largest drop in student numeracy and literacy skills that has likely ever occurred in the history of the state of Texas,” said Morath. The decline in “student math and literacy skills is as large as anything we have ever seen.”
The link between education and issues such as job prospects and earning potential means that the blow to public education from the pandemic will have substantial repercussions if the declines are not reversed, both for individual Texans and for the state as a whole, he said.
If left unchecked, he said, the drop in educational attainment equates to an average 6% reduction in lifetime earnings for the 5.5 million students enrolled in Texas public schools. , for a “net present value” of $ 2,000 billion in lost income.
Texas’ unemployment rate climbed to 12.9% on a seasonally adjusted basis in April of last year – from around 3.5% previously – amid widespread fears about the pandemic and temporary closures of businesses deemed unsuccessful. essential by government.
More recently, the state’s economy has picked up steam, although the delta variant of the coronavirus is still fueling uncertainty. The unemployment rate rose to 5.9% statewide in August, which remains high from pre-pandemic levels, but a substantial improvement from the height of the crisis.
However, the future Texas workforce is not expected to shake off the negative effects of the pandemic so quickly.
Harrison Keller, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, participated in the roundtable with Morath on Monday and said college enrollment in the state fell significantly overall last spring.
“It’s hard to overstate the impact of the pandemic on our colleges and universities,” Keller said.
“This is a strategic vulnerability (for the state) that doesn’t go away as we navigate the delta variant and other issues around the pandemic,” he said. “We know that the longer these students are away, the less likely they are to re-enroll.”
Keller said community colleges and regional universities have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s drop in enrollment, with male students, low-income students and some minority students the most likely to choose not to. attend.
The problem could have huge economic repercussions over time, he said, because there is “an astonishing correlation” between unemployment and a lack of academic achievement after high school. He also said the pandemic-induced economic downturn was “the most unfair” since the data was tracked, in terms of the most serious harm to low-skilled workers.
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic.
Morath highlighted a number of measures approved by the legislature this year that seek to address the declining educational attainment of Texas schoolchildren amid the pandemic.
In addition, his agency, Keller’s agency, and the Texas Workforce Commission have stepped up cooperation that began before the pandemic to try to ensure that students have the skills in demand in the state’s economy.
“At the end of the day, we listen to employers to know the needs” and then work to put programs in place to help people meet them, said Aaron Demerson, one of the agency’s three commissioners for the employment and participating in Monday’s roundtable.