04/30/2012 04:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2012

The Missing Teachers

The 2007 financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008 produced many victims. Unemployment grew, poverty increased and the availability of public services declined. But not often mentioned is the fact that the country's children too were victimized. The quality of public school education almost certainly was damaged.

Between May 2007 and May 2011 (the last year for which data are available) the number of teachers in the United States decreased by 223,770 -- a decline of almost 6 percent. Pre-school teachers took the greatest hit, with their number falling by 8.3 percent (calculated from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "National Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics," 2007, 2011). With a relatively stable student population, this has meant a substantial increase in the student/faculty ratio in the country, a reversal in the downward trend that had occurred since the mid-1990s. There is debate about the benefits that are to be derived when class size is reduced. But few believe that an increase in the student/teacher ratio does anything but make teaching more difficult and less successful.

In the most immediate sense, the loss of almost one-quarter million teachers occurred because the economic downturn reduced the tax revenues of state and local governments. School boards laid off personnel in order to balance their budgets. And though the national economy has recently shown signs of growth, as yet there has not been enough expansion to result in the rehiring of teachers to anything like pre-crisis levels.

However, none of this was inevitable. The financial crisis occurred because of a political decision to dismantle the New Deal regulation of the economy's financial and banking sectors. And that decision was itself the result of Wall Street's leveraging its power as the most important source of campaign funds. The financial sector's ability to make the difference between success and failure for candidates resulted in its obtaining a license for activities that brought down the whole economy. In a real sense, the country's children have paid the price for the inequality that is present in our political system.

No data are available indicating which schools and students have been most hard-hit by teacher cutbacks. However, information contained in a 2011 study produced by the U.S. Department of Education suggests that the poorest children probably are the most victimized. The study compared per pupil expenditures for "high need" schools with other schools in the same districts. This investigation found that in 2/3 of the school districts studied, per pupil personnel expenditures in "high need" schools were below the district average. On the assumption that the same pattern of underfunding governed the allocation of cutbacks, the inference to be drawn is that the schools most in need of teachers are the ones where the loss was greatest.

This is, of course, a tragedy for the poorest children. Already finding themselves in difficult circumstances, the educational attention they need to become successful adult citizens is increasingly unavailable. And the fact that proportionately, the largest reduction in teacher positions was at the preschool level is doubly damaging. Virtually all of the research on that subject suggests that it is at the youngest ages that schooling has its greatest impact.

But the children's loss is not confined to themselves. The reduction in the employment of teachers is damaging for the country as a whole. In the emerging globally integrated and high tech world, the societies that thrive are those in which schooling is provided at a high level for the entire population. We have not done as well in this regard as we should have in the past, and the economic downturn means that we probably will do worse in the future.

The fact is that our special-interest, private money-driven politics is simply not up to the task of successfully guiding the country in the emerging global society. Leaving large segments of the population poorly educated because greed drove economic policy-making is a certain prescription for national decline. And yet that is precisely what has happened. A very narrow segment of the population has disastrously influenced the formation of educational policy as a result of its ability and willingness to use its wealth politically. We will feel the negative consequences of their doing so well into the future.

What we need is a much more fair and equitable distribution of social resources. We should be using use our still abundant wealth to ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to develop their talents to the fullest. But such a redistribution of resources can only be accomplished when the power to enrich themselves is taken away from the oligarchs who now fund our political system.

There is no certainty that if we construct a more democratic politics by publicly funding election campaigns that we will do better for our children. But the current system has failed. The time is now to develop a more egalitarian politics.